The SARS virus apparently attacks people's cells in a manner similar to the AIDS virus, which may offer clues for finding the best drugs to treat the newly discovered disease, an AIDS researcher said yesterday.
Lab tests using an HIV treatment -- synthetic peptides -- on samples of the SARS virus have shown promising results and the next step will be tests on animals, said Dr. David Ho, one of the researchers who pioneered the drug cocktail treatment for AIDS patients.
It's far too soon to say whether such medications could be given to humans with SARS, which has sickened more than 7,200 people in over 25 countries, killing at least 526, Ho told a news conference.
The mortality rates are far different, Ho said. Among people who get HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, 99 percent will die without treatment, he said. SARS, on the other hand, is believed to kill about 15 percent of its victims, with elderly patients hit particularly hard, according to the World Health Organization.
"Most infected individuals do recover and so we know ultimately the body, in the majority of cases, probably wins over the virus," Ho said. "That means the body has the capacity to cure it."
Peptides are groups of amino acids that have been used to slow AIDS in a drug called Fuzeon, though they are expensive.
"We're not saying this is the drug to treat [SARS] patients tomorrow or next month," said Ho, who is scientific director of the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center in New York.
Ho has made several trips here to help University of Hong Kong researchers who are seeking a cure for SARS, and believes the work previously done with AIDS, or acquired immune deficiency syndrome, might offer a head start in the fight against SARS.
"This is the right direction," agreed Dr. Yuen Kwok-yung, a Hong Kong scientist who appeared yesterday with Ho.
Hong Kong has suffered 1,674 SARS infections and 212 deaths, throwing the territory into crisis.
Scientists here have been rushing to find out all they can about the cause of the disease, which is believed to come from a member of the coronavirus family that also can cause common colds.
Doctors in Hong Kong had been treating SARS patients with a cocktail of the antiviral drug ribavirin and steroids, but announced on Saturday they have modified the strategy after learning more about SARS.
SARS seems to hit people in phases that require different types of treatment, and Hong Kong doctors are now delaying the use of steroids and in some cases replacing ribavirin with another antiviral drug, Kaletra, a protease inhibitor.
Some patients get both ribavirin and Kaletra, but only in the first two weeks of SARS when the virus is multiplying rapidly, Hong Kong health officials said.
The steroids are now administered midway through the disease, when patients' immune systems develop a "hyperactive" response to combat the SARS virus.
There is no known cure for SARS, and some researchers have questioned whether Hong Kong's drug regime is effective.