UI studies Arabian virus

BY LILY ABROMEIT | MAY 08, 2014 5:00 AM

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In Saudi Arabia, people are suffering from flu-like symptoms that could turn into something worse — Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome.

All the way across the globe, professors at the University of Iowa are looking for a solution.

“The reason we’re involved in this project is to try to understand how the virus causes disease, so that we could perhaps contribute to how to develop treatment,” said Paul McCray, a UI professor of pediatrics.

McCray has been working with Stanley Perlman, a UI professor of microbiology and pediatrics, for around a year on a new way to approach research on the illness — testing on mice.

The disease is caused by a coronavirus, similar to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, and has most commonly been found in the Arabian Peninsula. Symptoms can consist of a fever, cough, or shortness of breath.

Only one case has been identified in the United States, found this month in Indiana.

Jason McDonald, a spokesman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the syndrome can cause respiratory issues and is fatal in a third of the cases.

He said that while some viruses, such as the ones that cause influenza, spread easily through the community, The Arabian syndrome does not seem to do so.

“We’re still trying to learn all we can about the virus,” he said. “As far as what people should worry about, or be concerned about, when it comes to it, is if you’ve been in close contact with someone … who’s being evaluated for MERS, you should be cautious.”

A research specialist said exploration in this area is becoming more important.

“We think it is very important to develop treatments and vaccines that could be used against [the syndrome] and other coronaviruses,” David Swerdlow, the head of Arabian syndrome research at the CDC, wrote in an email.

Perlman and McCray are making steps in that direction.

Mice are resistant to the disease but the team added receptors into the mice to make it possible for the virus to enter their cells.

“We work together to make this mouse model of the [sysdrome] infection in order to have a small-animal model … to ask these questions in,” McCray said. “By continuing to work with small-animal models, we can better understand how it causes these diseases. It allows us to use the animal model as a testing ground for ideas that are therapeutic … so I hope it’ll shed light both on how the virus is caused and help us develop treatments.”

Perlman said this research is a lengthy process and will take many more years and increased efforts to find a vaccine or treatment.

This is something both researchers said they don’t anticipate to be a problem.

“Just the fact that this new animal model was developed here is evidence of the success of our research programs,” McCray said. “But it’s also proving to be a resource that a lot of people are interested in.”

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