Purdue researchers discover weakness of MERS virus

A team of researchers at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., may have successfully targeted the Achilles' heel of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome virus.

The virus was thrust into the international spotlight once again when a recent MERS outbreak in South Korea led to the quarantine of thousands of people. As of June 23, the World Health Organization had reported 27 deaths and 175 confirmed MERS cases linked to the outbreak.

Two Purdue professors — Andrew Mesecar, PhD, and Arun Ghosh, PhD — have been studying MERS, as well as creating and testing molecular compounds that could potentially lead to treatments, since shortly after the virus was discovered in 2012.

Together, the two led a team of researchers that identified molecules that inhibit an enzyme essential to MERS virus replication in a recent study.

The enzyme the team targeted within the MERS virus is called 3C-like protease. Without the enzyme, the virus cannot create more viruses to further an infection. In order to form the virus' dimer and shut the replication process down, a single copy of the 3C-like protease must find and bond to another identical 3C-like protease "twin."

The team found that formation of the MERS protease dimer can be stimulated by binding a third molecule at a particular site on its surface to trigger the formation of a strong dimer. However, they also discovered while adding inhibitor molecules to interact with the protease that, at low doses, the inhibitor increased the ability of a single MERS protease to find a twin, effectively activating the protease.

"We were very surprised to see that this inhibitor molecule that could potentially shut down the virus may also have the potential to increase its activity," said Dr. Mesecar. "At low inhibitor concentrations we saw an increase in the protease's activity, but at high concentrations it was shut down completely."

According to Dr. Mesecar, the findings suggest it will be complicated to turn this inhibitor into a viable treatment, but the team will continue to investigate the interaction of the inhibitor molecule with 3C-like protease isolated from the MERS virus, as well as other potential inhibitor molecules.



More articles on MERS:
7 lessons from the MERS outbreak in South Korea
MERS outbreak in South Korea: 9 things to know
Infection control lapses lead to spread of MERS, study finds

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