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[BEIJING] Chinese and European scientists have identified 15 existing drugs that have the potential to kill the virus that causes SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome).

One of the compounds, cinanserin, was approved in the United States for clinical use in the 1960s to treat schizophrenia and other psychopathic diseases.

The researchers, a collaborative group from China, Germany, Denmark and Poland have spent the past year screening more than 8,000 existing drugs to find those that could combat SARS.

Last month, they published a paper in the Journal of Virology showing that cinanserin can stop the SARS virus from replicating.

Since neither cinanserin nor the other compounds have been tested against SARS in animals or people, it is too early to say whether they could be developed as SARS treatments, says Shen Xu, a scientist at Shanghai Institute of Materia Medica and a member of the team that identified the compounds.

But Shen adds that it does mean cinanserin could be used as an emergency treatment in future SARS outbreaks.

The researchers showed that the compound works against SARS by blocking one of the virus's enzymes, called 3CLpro. Over the past few years, it has emerged that 3CLpro plays a crucial role in the virus's life cycle, making it one of the most promising targets for anti-SARS drugs.

Shen adds that cinanserin could not form a SARS treatment on its own, but would need to be used in combination with other drugs.

He suggests that since it is an old drug, that is both safe and cheap, cinanserin could be used widely for SARS patients in the developing world.

The three-year research collaboration, which is funded by the European Commission, was launched in 2004 to identify 50 compounds that have the potential to treat SARS.

According to Yang Huanming, director of the Beijing Institute of Genomics, says the project does not aim to develop the potential compounds into medicines. Instead, he says, the compounds could be offered to pharmaceutical firms to develop.

Before ebbing away in July 2003, SARS had killed 774 people worldwide and infected a further 8,000.

China is also working on methods to prevent new SARS epidemics. On 29 June, Chinese media reported that the second phase of clinical trials of a Chinese SARS vaccine will begin soon.

The first phase trials were completed in December (see Chinese SARS vaccine passes first safety test).

Link to abstract of paper on cinanserin

Yang Huanming is a regional advisor to SciDev.Net's China network

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