HONG KONG The SARS virus, which spread to many countries around the world in 2003 killing about 800 people, invades its victims using "fatty rafts" on the cell membrane, Chinese scientists have found.
These lipid rafts, or fatty acids, are cholesterol-enriched sections of the cell membrane.
How the SARS virus enters and infects its host cells has always been controversial, but such details are crucial as they provide important clues on how the virus can be stopped.
In an article published in Cell Research, scientists in China and the United States described how they cultured cells, exposed them to the virus and then observed how the virus was engulfed -- a process called endocytosis -- by the host cells.
"The virus gets in through endocytosis and then it is aided by lipid rafts along the way," Jiang Chengyu, a professor at the Peking Union Medical College in Beijing, said in a telephone interview.
But Jiang said designing an "inhibitor" to stop the virus was still a long way off.
"This finding helps us understand the puzzle a little more, but as for creating an inhibitor, that is still a long way to go," she said.
Experts say the palm civet and certain species of bats are natural hosts of the SARS virus, and some of them caution that SARS could re-emerge and become a global threat.
China was condemned internationally for not alerting the world to the threat of SARS when it first showed up in the southern province of Guangdong in late 2002.
But it has done much after the 2003 epidemic to ban the rearing and consumption of civets in an effort to remove a vital link in the chain.
The article can be found at www.nature.com/cr
(Reporting by Tan Ee Lyn; Editing by Alex Richardson)