EU-Chinese co-operation pinpoints potential treatments for SARS

August 1, 2005

Brussels, 29 Jul 2005

A team of EU-backed scientists from across Europe and China have identified a number of promising anti-SARS compounds. One of which is a treatment for schizophrenia first developed in the 1960s and already approved for use by US authorities.

Chinese and European scientists have named 15 existing drugs as having the potential to kill the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS). One of the target compounds, cinanserin, was approved in the USA for clinical use in the 1960s to treat psychopathic diseases, such as schizophrenia.

Chinese scientists teamed up with researchers from Germany, Denmark and Poland to identify the most promising compounds to be offered to pharmaceutical companies for developing new drugs against the deadly disease. The team of scientists in the EU-supported SEPSDA project (Sino-European Project on SARS Diagnostics and Antivirals) have spent the past years screening over 8 000 existing drugs to find prime candidates for combating SARS.

Their findings, establishing that cinanserin can halt the SARS virus from replicating, were published in last month's Journal of Virology. But the scientists are not popping champagne corks yet. Without animal tests or epidemiological testing on people, no one can say for sure that most of these candidate compounds could be developed into effective SARS treatments, they caution.

However, they concede that cinanserin – most probably in combination with other drugs – could be used as an emergency treatment in future outbreaks of this highly contagious type of pneumonia, especially in the developing world.

"The finding means that cinanserin could be directly prescribed to prevent the SARS disease or treat SARS patients if the fatal epidemic mounts a comeback," Professor Peter Kristensen of Denmark's University of Aarhus recently told China Daily.

The team explained that it works against SARS by blocking an enzyme in the virus, called 3Clpro, which it is now known plays a key part in the viral life cycle.

Likely candidate

The first recorded case of SARS was in China's Guangdong province in November 2002. Over the following seven months, the viral epidemic infected some 8 400 people in 32 countries worldwide and claimed almost 800 victims, mostly in Southeast Asia.

Since the major SARS outbreak abated, scientists from all over the world have worked together in an unprecedented spirit of collaboration. The current Sino-European co-operative research project, funded under the 'Integrating and Strengthening the ERA' component of the Sixth Research Framework Programme (FP6), was launched in 2004 to identify 50 compounds that have the potential to treat the disease.

With 15 down, the team say they are committed to identifying a further 35. The researchers' main aim is not to develop the compounds into medicines themselves, but to provide the first proof of concept for drug makers to develop them fully.

In related news, China is also reported to be working on vaccines to prevent new SARS epidemics. Trials of one such vaccine got underway in December last year and recent reports indicate that the second phase of testing has commenced in June.

DG Research
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