Scientists reboot SARS research in search of drug to fight coronavirus

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CHICAGO — A new drug to treat coronavirus could come from scientists right here in Chicago.

When news of a novel coronavirus outbreak surfaced, a lab at Northwestern Medicine jumped into action, picking up where work left off after the SARS outbreak in 2003-2004.

“When SARS went away, much of the research that was very active stopped, and there was no financial incentive. So, now we’re trying to reboot many of those projects,” said Dr. Karla Satchell, a microbiologist with Northwestern Medicine.

Their targets? Proteins that help COVID-19 (novel coronavirus) replicate in the body. There are 28 of them and researchers are trying to map each one, including some they already know are identical to the SARS virus.

Once scientists can see the structure of each protein, they can figure out a way to attack it. And while they began this research more than 15 years ago, they’re hoping to capitalizing on past successes to treat a new threat.

“The pace of research is going very fast,” Satchell said.

Northwestern Medicine researchers have already mapped four proteins and are set to share those 3-D images with scientists around the world.

One way Satchell said a drug could attack the virus is by targeting the machinery that allows it to spread by entering a cell, replicating itself, and then bursting out to invade neighboring cells.

“If we can actually put something in that stops a piece of that machinery, that helps that virus to grow and help that virus make more other viral particles, that’s the best place to stop it,” Satchell said.

Even if the number of cases begins to level off, Dr. Satchell and her team learned from the SARS epidemic that they shouldn’t lose momentum that’s taken weeks to build.

“Even if it does drop in the spring there is deep concern it will come up again in the fall, so we’re going to be vigilant in the summer and into the fall and see if it re-emerges,” Satchell said.

Experts say it could take 18 months to two years to develop a new drug.


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