New virus uses protein handle to infect cells

Deadly coronavirus related to SARS attaches to molecule common to people, many animals

A new coronavirus that has sickened 14 people, killing eight of them, can slip into cells in many types of animals, a new study shows.

The new coronavirus latches onto a protein called dipeptidyl peptidase 4, or DPP4, which decorates the surface of many cells, including some in human airways and kidneys, Bart Haagmans of Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, and colleagues report in the March 14 Nature. Though the virus is related to the SARS coronavirus, DPP4 is different from the protein that SARS needs to infect cells.

So far, the new virus has not spread easily between people (SN: 3/23/13, p. 5). Its poor airborne transmission may be because DPP4 exists on cells in the lungs, where the virus can’t be readily coughed or sneezed out. The scientists don’t know yet whether the protein also resides on cells in the nose or throat.

Knowing the identity of the entry protein may help scientists develop treatments. But because the protein exists in many species of wild and domestic animals, pinpointing the one or few species that pass the virus on to people may be difficult.

Tina Hesman Saey is the senior staff writer and reports on molecular biology. She has a Ph.D. in molecular genetics from Washington University in St. Louis and a master’s degree in science journalism from Boston University.

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