Image copyright Ia 1, e 1 , R , t2 Image caption Fat tissue is strongly affected by the virus
Roughly one in four cases of severe haemorrhagic fever diagnosed in laboratories is clinically confirmed to be linked to a major strain of coronavirus, scientists have found.
A protein of the group that makes up the virus is strongly associated with fat tissue.
The finding suggests a link between fat tissue and death from the virus.
New drugs to counter the virus could be developed and tested to treat severe cases.
Around 24,000 cases of severe haemorrhagic fever are reported each year worldwide.
Coronaviruses, as they are collectively known, cause respiratory problems as well as the common cold, and are also behind the virus that causes acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) that killed Dr Pauline Cafferkey.
The scientists from the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the US had been working to investigate possible links between coronaviruses and tissue scarring.
These were the findings of the latest paper published in Nature Medicine.
Figure 1. Coronavirus protein being produced from human bone marrow (Branch 6).
Structurally, the protein of the coronavirus that caused SARS and H1N1 had virtually the same cell appearance.
But it also carried a protein commonly found in fat tissue, which was thought to be for storage and secreting alcohol, as well as used to support the muscle.
Finding the gene responsible for making the protein would mean scientists could see where fat tissue lies in the cluster of the virus.
However, that was not what they found.
The proteins were linked to the same structure in the cell membranes of the patients. But that was just as likely to be because of their shared mutations in a different membrane protein or the abnormal manner in which the virus genes were assembled.
Severe cases of the virus were found in about 26% of laboratory cases.
“The finding of these findings within the viral proteins that make up the coronavirus families increases our understanding of their biology,” said senior author, Jeffrey Shaman, a professor of microbiology and immunology at the University of Florida College of Medicine.
“It provides a mechanism by which the virus may attack and disrupt fat tissue, contributing to the severity of the disease,” he added.
The researchers’ findings also suggest the family of coronaviruses could potentially be used to produce drugs for treating such symptoms.
Professor Matthew Langeridge, who was not involved in the study, said: “Given that the mechanisms of disease don’t just look like causative agents, this could potentially give a new way to develop drugs to treat the coronavirus.”
As the virus strain may have specific effects on fat tissue, the data from this study would be useful for scientists in developing novel drugs.
But the team also stressed that it was just a prediction of future events.
They also cautioned that the findings did not indicate an advance in the study of coronaviruses.
Additional reporting by Josh Levs and Greg Larkin, BBC News
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