09/22/2004, 00.00
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Hong Kong scientists make Sars breakthrough

Hong  Kong (AsiaNews/SCMP) -  Hong Kong scientists say they have identified chemical compounds that can stop Sars being infectious, raising hopes for a cure for the deadly illness.

The breakthrough is based on "chemical genetics", or the use of chemicals to thwart viruses from replicating.

Using a new method called the high-throughput screening platform, the researchers quickly screened the Sars virus against a chemical library of more than 50,000 molecule compounds.

They found 104 of the molecules could arrest the virus. The scientists intend to test the compounds on animals and, should Sars return, on humans. Research assistant professor Richard Kao Yi-tsun said cautioned they were still far from getting a drug for Sars because the compounds had to go through animal and clinical trials.

"And then we will decide whether to develop the drugs, as it will depend on whether Sars will come back and on any commercial partners to help us test them," he said.

Chemical genetics was first developed by Harvard Medical School and applied in cancer treatment.

Dr Kao said this was the first time chemical genetics had been used to tackle infectious diseases. The hope was that when a new virus occurred, "we can react more rapidly and we can find novel drugs that can specifically target that disease". "When there is a new virus, we can jump onto this ... platform and screen more than 50,000 molecules and see which one of them can stop the virus from killing cells." Previously, researchers tested compounds one at a time, which could take years. But the university team was able to identify the 104 compounds in weeks. Researchers from the University of Hong Kong said their approach could also help develop drugs to fight other infectious viruses, such as bird flu and herpes.

In China Sars is believed to have originated in the country's Guangdong province in late 2002. Within a year the virus infected more than 8000 people in 29 countries and claimed more that 900 human lives. Sars killed 299 people in Hong Kong last year.

Lack of knowledge about the novel virus and the absence of therapeutics were the primary reasons that the outbreak could not be contained and managed efficiently.

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