In the News

April 10, 2003

New University

UCI Researchers Develop New Program for SARS Detection

By Charlene Manalo

Researchers at UC Irvine are currently working around the clock to create a diagnostic test for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS.

Luis Villarreal, director of UCI’s Center for Virus Research, is currently collaborating with Gregory Weiss from the UCI Department of chemistry and Richard Lathrop from the School of ICS to create a diagnostic test to allow hospitals to test for SARS.

Typically, it can take months to create an antibody to detect the SARS virus in patients. However, with the new technology, these researchers have accomplished creating a reagent or chemical substance to detect the virus.

For the past two years, Villarreal has been involved in a program that tackles the issues of rapid response to bioterrorist agents.

The program allows researchers to sequence a genome in order to find one specifically identical to that of the SARS virus. By finding this genome, researchers can detect the disease and mobilize finding a cure.

“We have been developing a system to respond to small pox and anthrax,” Villarreal said. “Responding to emerging diseases such as SARS is identical to responding to a bioterrorist attack in which they resemble a sudden appearance of an agent spreading in a population.”

According to Villarreal, they started sequencing the SARS virus’ DNA a week ago. With 50 computers working for 40 hours, they have already created the first set of synthetic genes.

Researchers are currently working on modifying these genes, so that they can be “optimized” to make future research on these genes easier.

“We modify the genes to be codon optimized to be efficient to be used with other research from diagnostics to therapeutics. Vaccines are based on the genes,” Villareal said.

According to Gregory Weiss and Philip Felgner, another UCI professor is working on a research that involves diverting DNA into proteins. Felgner will then take the sequenced gene from Villarreal and turn it into the proteins associated with the SARS virus. Afterwards, Weiss will be using shotgun scanning technology to interpret the details of the protein interaction of the SARS virus

“Our laboratory has a large collection of potential keys that can fit into the SARS proteins,” Weiss said. “Currently we are using this collection of keys to see if one of them fits into the SARS proteins.”

“These keys can be the potential reagent used to detect the SARS virus,” Weiss said. “It could normally take months or years to be able to detect these protein interactions but with molecular recognition technology we can be able to do it in weeks.”

These keys are proteins and peptides that interlock with SARS proteins so that researchers can identify them. This identification can be further used by physicians to diagnose the SARS disease by creating a reagent.

Weiss was pleased that his lab set up shifts to be able to work 24 hours a day. If the protein is detected, they plan on having the reagent available to the public.

“Once we come up with something that binds to the protein, we will be contacting a manufacturing facility for testing,” Weiss said.

Lathrop is also involved in creating the software that was used in the project.

“This does really reflect the capacity and skills at UC Irvine. This research is a confluence of ICS, chemistry and molecular biology,” Villarreal said.

The UCI-based center is the only center in California that has an emphasis in virology and pathogenesis. The purpose of the center is to develop interactions between faculty that utilizes virus-based technology to study virus mechanisms to build a strong base for virology. This includes devising new innovations to mobilize research regarding viruses and ailments caused by pathogens such as SARS.

The SARS virus has afflicted a number of countries worldwide. According to the World Health Organization, the SARS death toll is currently 293 worldwide with a fatality rate rising to 6 percent.
UCI Researchers Develop New Program for SARS Detection

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