* Deadly MERS virus first emerged in Middle East in 2012
* Sharp rise in cases in Saudi Arabia causing global alarm
* Scientists say antibody discovery points to possible drugs
By Kate Kelland
LONDON, April 28 Scientists have found natural
human antibodies to the newly-emerging Middle East Respiratory
Syndrome (MERS) virus and say their discovery marks a step
towards developing treatments for the often fatal disease.
MERS, a SARS-like viral disease first detected in 2012 that
has caused outbreaks in the Middle East and sporadic cases
around the world, has raised international alarm in recent weeks
with a surge in infections and deaths in Saudi Arabia.
Saudi officials confirmed 26 more MERS cases and 10 deaths
at the weekend, bringing the toll in the kingdom alone to 339
confirmed cases, of which 102 have been fatal.
There is currently no cure or vaccine for MERS - a severe
respiratory disease which causes cough, fever, shortness of
breath, and can lead to pneumonia and kidney failure.
But in studies published in two leading scientific journals
on Monday, scientists from the United States, China and Hong
Kong said they had found several so-called neutralising
antibodies that were able to prevent a key part of the virus
from attaching to receptors that allow it to infect human cells.
Antibodies are proteins made by the immune system that
recognise foreign viruses and bacteria. A neutralising antibody
is one that not only recognises a specific virus but also
prevents it from infecting host cells, eventually meaning the
infection is cleared from the person or animal.
In one study in the Science Translational Medicine journal,
a Chinese-led team found that two antibodies, called MERS-4 and
MERS-27, were able to block cells in a lab dish from becoming
infected with the MERS virus.
"While early, the results hint that these antibodies,
especially ... used in combination, could be promising
candidates for interventions against MERS," the scientists
In a second study in the Proceedings of the National Academy
of Sciences (PNAS) journal, a team from the United States said
their discovery of a panel of seven neutralising antibodies
offered the long-term possibility that either a vaccine or
treatments could be developed to fight MERS.
The vast majority of MERS cases have been in Saudi Arabia
and other countries in the Middle East, but the discovery of
sporadic cases in Britain, Greece, France, Italy, Malaysia and
other countries have raised concerns about the potential global
spread of the disease by infected airline passengers.
Although the disease has not yet been seen in North America,
"the chance of someone infected with MERS landing on U.S. shores
is possible," said Wayne Marasco, an infectious disease expert
at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute who led the PNAS study.
Scientists are not yet clear precisely how the MERS virus is
transmitted to people, but it has been found in bats and camels,
and many experts say camels are the most likely animal reservoir
from which humans are becoming infected.
The virus is similar to the one that caused Severe Acute
Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) which emerged in China in 2002/2003
and killed some 800 people - around a tenth of those it
The World Health Organisation has said it is "concerned"
about the rising number of MERS infections in Saudi Arabia. The
United Nations health agency said it plans to send a team of
international experts to the kingdom this week to help
investigate the outbreak.
(Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)