Mon, May 19, 2003 - Page 3 News List

`Father of the coronavirus' leads fight against SARS

By Melody Chen  /  STAFF REPORTER

To contain SARS, scientists believe it is necessary to tackle the culprit that triggers the killer disease. Michael Lai (賴明詔), a US Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, has returned to Taiwan to head up the fight against the coronavirus, the causative agent of SARS.

Dubbed by China "the father of the coronavirus," Lai has spent the past 30 years studying the virus, which only started attracting world attention after it was linked to SARS.

At the institution, Lai's laboratory studies the replication and pathogenesis of several human and animal RNA (Ribose Nuclei Acid) viruses, including the hepatitis C virus, hepatitis delta virus and coronavirus.

On May 10, Lee Yuan-tseh (李遠哲), president of Academia Sinica, established a SARS research task force consisting of a number of notable scientists. Lai arrived in Taiwan to assist the battle against the virus on May 8.

Lee invited Lai and Chen Ding-shinn (陳定信), dean of National Taiwan University's College of Medicine, to co-chair the SARS research task force. Lai and Chen were classmates in the college Chen now heads.

Both Lai and Chen became fellows of Academia Sinica's Institute of Life Sciences in 1991. As Sunney Chan (陳長謙), the incumbent vice president of Academic Sinica, is due to retire soon, Lai will assume his position in July.

Lai was born in Tainan in 1942 and entered the city's most prestigious high school.

"He was a distinguished student in high school. He had done well in his studies and had a good personality," Chen said.

According to Chen, Lai was friendly to his classmates.

"He did not become aloof because of his outstanding academic performance," Chen said.

Lai obtained his MD in medicine at NTU in 1968 and PhD at the University of California, Berkeley in 1973. His research topics are virology, RNA and DNA, gene regulation and transcription.

While summing up Lai's research, the insitute reported that the coronavirus causes respiratory and gastrointestinal diseases in humans and animals.

"It [the coronavirus] also causes neurological symptoms similar to those of multiple sclerosis. The virus has an RNA genome of 31,000 nucleotides, which is the longest known viral RNA," the institute said.

Lai is a distinguished professor of molecular microbiology, immunology and neurology at the University of Southern California's School of Medicine.

In an interview with Chinese media in late April, Lai said the genetic sequences of the coronavirus causing SARS showed similarities to those of the coronaviruses found in mice and poultry.

Lai, who has studied coronaviruses in cows, pigs, chickens, cats and mice, said coronaviruses do not usually jump from one species to another.

According to Lai, coronaviruses from different species will occasionally swap genes and mutate. But he said it is unlikely that humans were infected with the virus because of eating poultry.

Lai, author of many textbooks on the coronavirus, mapped out the world's first genetic sequences of coronavirus found in mice 12 years ago. So far, he has published more than 270 papers, according to the US National Library of Medicine.

In the interview, Lai also remarked: "Viruses are more intelligent than human beings. Their history on the planet is far older than human history. They know better than humans about how to survive."

Decades of research on viruses has convinced Lai the invisible organisms display great intelligence and skills to survive.

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