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En Route to SARS Drugs
By Kate Dalke

Scientists have discovered a new point of attack against the SARS virus. German researchers have determined the structure of an enzyme that, if disabled by drugs, could kill the virus.

In reporting their findings, the researchers said that an experimental drug being tested by Pfizer against the common cold virus could be a model for developing an anti-SARS drug. Pfizer was not involved in the SARS study.

Models of cold virus enzyme with blue inhibitor bound (left) and SARS enzyme with blue inhibitor bound (right).

Coming just weeks after the SARS genomes were published online, the study illustrates the value of sharing data about the virus among researchers worldwide.

As soon as the genomes became available, the German researchers created a model of the enzyme using the SARS data and the structures of two related enzymes, one in the virus that causes the common cold and the other in a pig coronavirus.

The new model can be used to design anti-SARS drugs. The enzyme, called cornavirus main proteinase, helps the virus replicate inside cells.

“If you hit this target successfully, you have hit the Achilles' heel of the virus,” said Rolf Hilgenfeld of the University of Luebeck, Germany, during a news conference today. The research appears online in Science.

The new research will not improve treatments during the current outbreak of SARS. It could be months before researchers design a drug to inhibit the SARS virus and years before a drug enters the marketplace.

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Anand, K. et al. Coronavirus main proteinase (3CL pro) structure: Basis for design of anti-SARS drugs. Science. Published online May 13, 2003.

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