News / Health

Could Existing Drugs Be Used to Treat Deadly MERS Virus?

Can Existing Drugs Help Fight Deadly MERS Virus?i
X
Steve Baragona
May 07, 2014 12:49 PM
A deadly new illness has appeared in the Middle East, and doctors have no medicine to stop it. So far, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome does not spread easily from person to person. But it has killed roughly a quarter of those infected, and experts are watching it closely in case it becomes more contagious. In the scramble to find a cure, scientists are turning up some unexpected candidates. VOA’s Steve Baragona has more.
A lethal new virus that originated in the Middle East is spreading and there is no drug to fight it.

Or is there? Scientists are scouring the medicine cabinet for existing drugs to fight Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and they're finding some unexpected candidates. 

In lab studies, drugs against cancer, neurological disorders and other ailments show promise to help treat MERS. 

Why would a cancer drug stop a virus? Scientists don’t necessarily know. But the fact that they work at all is helping researchers understand previously unknown ways in which the drugs -- and the viruses -- function.

'Extraordinary' virus

MERS has killed about a quarter of the roughly 500 people infected since it was first detected in 2012. 

“The mortality rate is extraordinary,” said National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci. “That’s unheard of with common respiratory infections. That’s the very, very sobering news about this. The somewhat encouraging news so far is that it is not readily spread from person to person.”
Passengers walk past the medical quarantine area showing information sheets on Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) at the arrivals section of Manila's International Airport in Paranaque, south of Manila, April 16, 2014.Passengers walk past the medical quarantine area showing information sheets on Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) at the arrivals section of Manila's International Airport in Paranaque, south of Manila, April 16, 2014.
The virus that causes MERS is related to the SARS virus that erupted out of China in 2003. SARS killed about 10 percent of its approximately 8,000 victims but it was much more contagious than MERS is. Experts are keeping a close eye on MERS in case it mutates to become more infectious. 

Long wait for new drugs

Doctors have little to offer MERS patients. There are no drugs approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. 

And developing a new drug is time-consuming and expensive. Virologist Matt Frieman at the University of Maryland at Baltimore says candidates that work well in a test tube often do not work in living cells. 

“And the ones that do, when you now take them from a cell to an animal model of the disease, most of them don’t work,” he said. 

Drugs that are effective in animal tests still need to go through three stages of clinical trials to be sure they help sick people without doing more harm than good.

“Starting from scratch, to go from basic research in an academic lab to getting a product licensed by the FDA, can take a decade and tons and tons of money,” said immunologist Erik Stemmy, who oversees MERS research grants for the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).

Robot testing

That’s why NIAID is backing efforts to look for drugs that are already FDA-approved for something else that might also work against MERS.

Robots are lending a hand. Automated systems developed in just the last few years can screen hundreds of drugs at a time.

“You can do a lot of quick, test-tube, petri-dish screens to see if, hey, does this have any efficacy or not,” Stemmy said. “That’s what’s really moving this field forward.”

Stemmy added that researchers are using the same techniques to hunt for existing drugs that fight antibiotic-resistant germs, another growing public health problem with little or nothing new in the drug-development pipeline.

The robots have turned up about two dozen drugs that Frieman is putting through further tests. 

“Most of them have not been used against viruses at all,” he said.
 


It is not always clear how these drugs work, even for their intended purpose. Frieman says only recently did scientists begin designing medicines against specific parts of a cell’s machinery. Many started out as plant extracts or other compounds that treated a disease, even though doctors did not know why or how. 

“A lot of these drugs do things that either were not known before,” he said, “or they target the things that everyone thought they targeted, but no one knew that that was involved in virus replication.”

When a virus infects a cell, it hijacks the cell’s machinery to replicate, or make copies of itself. In pictures from one experiment, Frieman points out how one type of cellular protein important in infection is normally scattered around the cell, but moves to the center of the cell when treated with one drug.

“We don’t know why they do this with the drug. But we know that the drug that does this inhibits replication of the virus.”

'Promising candidates'

These drugs still need to be tested to see if they work as well in animals as they do in a petri dish. Only then would they be considered for sick patients.

But the fact that they are already FDA-approved is one less hurdle they need to clear.

“I think that we have some definite promising therapeutic candidates in the pipeline,” Stemmy said. “And I think that if things progress with the infections and the spread, I think we’re in a really good position to be able to respond.”

And what they are learning from MERS may put scientists in a good position to respond to other new viruses.

You May Like

Karzai's Legacy: Missed Opportunities?

Afghanistan's president leaves behind a much different nation than the one he inherited, yet his legacy from 13 years in power is getting mixed reviews More

Secret Service Chief Under Fire for White House Security Breach

Julia Pierson faces tough questions from lawmakers after recent intrusion at White House, says: 'It is clear that our security plan was not executed properly' More

Frustrated, Liberian Students Want Ebola Fight Role

Thousands have volunteered to go to counties, rural villages to talk to people in their language about deadly virus More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: rand moore from: SZ, China
May 07, 2014 6:43 PM
Since MERS is said to be related to SARS, maybe researchers should review what Hong Kong (and other SARs researchers) did to fight that disease, including what medicines they tried. There's a chance that what was effective in treating SARs patients could be effective against MERS.

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Malaysia Struggles to Stop People Joining Jihadi
X
Mahi Ramakrishnan
September 30, 2014 2:16 PM
Malaysian authorities say militant groups like the so-called "Islamic State" have used social media to entice at least three dozen Malaysian Muslims to fight in what they call "jihad" in Syria and Iraq. As Mahi Ramkrishnan reports from Kuala Lumpur, counterterrorism police are deeply worried about what could happen when these militants return home.
Video

Video Malaysia Struggles to Stop People Joining Jihad

Malaysian authorities say militant groups like the so-called "Islamic State" have used social media to entice at least three dozen Malaysian Muslims to fight in what they call "jihad" in Syria and Iraq. As Mahi Ramkrishnan reports from Kuala Lumpur, counterterrorism police are deeply worried about what could happen when these militants return home.
Video

Video Could US Have Done More to Stop Rise of Islamic State?

President Obama says airstrikes against Islamic State militants in Syria will likely continue for some time because, in his words, "there is a cancer that has grown for too long." So what if President Obama had acted sooner in Syria to arm more-moderate opponents of both the Islamic State and the Syrian government? VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports from the United Nations.
Video

Video Treasure Hunters Seek 'Hidden Treasure' in Central Kenya

Could a cave in a small village in central Kenya be the site of buried treasure? A rumor of riches, left behind by colonialists, has some residents dreaming of wealth, while others see it as a dangerous hoax. VOA's Gabe Joselow has the story.
Video

Video Iran's Rouhani Skeptical on Syria Strikes

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani expressed skepticism Friday that U.S.-led airstrikes in Iraq and Syria could crush Islamic State militants. From New York, VOA’s Margaret Besheer reports the president was also hopeful that questions about Iran’s nuclear program could be resolved soon.
Video

Video US House Speaker: Congress Should Debate Authorization Against IS

As wave after wave of U.S. airstrikes target Islamic State militants, the speaker of the Republican-controlled House of Representatives says he would be willing to call Congress back into session to debate a formal, broad authorization for the use of military force. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports from Washington, where legislators left town 10 days ago for a seven-week recess.
Video

Video Ebola Patients Find No Treatment at Sierra Leone Holding Center

At a holding facility in Makeni, central Sierra Leone, dozens of sick people sit on the floor in an empty university building. They wait in filthy conditions. It's a 16-hour drive by ambulance to Kailahun Ebola treatment center. Adam Bailes was there and reports on what he says are some of the worst situations he has seen since the beginning of this Ebola outbreak. And he says it appears case numbers may already be far worse than authorities acknowledge.
Video

Video Identifying Bodies Found in Texas Border Region

Thousands of immigrants have died after crossing the border from Mexico into remote areas of the southwestern United States in recent years. Local officials in south Texas alone have found hundreds of unidentified bodies and buried them in mass graves in local cemeteries. Now an anthropologist and her students at Baylor University have been exhuming bodies and looking for clues to identify them. VOA’s Greg Flakus has more from Waco, Texas.
Video

Video Ebola Robs Liberians of Chance to Say Good-Bye to Loved Ones

In Liberia, where Ebola has killed more than 1,500 people, authorities have worked hard to convince people to allow specialized burial teams to take away dead bodies. But these safety measures, while necessary, make it hard for people to say good bye to their loved ones. VOA's Anne Look reports on the tragedy from Liberia.
Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.

AppleAndroid