When the respiratory illness SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) emerged in 2003, it killed at least 775 people before it was contained. Nine years later, MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) began circulating in the human population–and has gone on to have a 36 percent case fatality rate.
These diseases are species of coronaviruses, rapidly evolving pathogens that can “spill over” from animal populations to humans.
“We need to be prepared for these viruses,” said Andrew Ward, associate professor at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI).
Now Ward and his colleagues at TSRI, Dartmouth and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have solved the structure of a key protein in HKU1, a coronavirus identified in Hong Kong in 2005 and highly related to SARS and MERS. They believe their findings will guide future treatments for this family of viruses.
“This is really the ground floor,” said Ward, who co-led the study with Jason S. McLellan, assistant professor of biochemistry in the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College. “Once you have structures, you can actually start to go after different coronaviruses, like MERS and SARS.”
The research was published today in the journal Nature.