HOPE FOR A QUICK CURE FOR SARS IS RISING
by Joe Shea
American Reporter Correspondent
Los Angeles, Calif.
LOS ANGELES, May 9, 2003 -- Chances that a proposed drug for use against SARS will prove effective against the deadly pneumonia epidemic were sharply improved by findings that only insignificant mutations are occurring in the cornoavirus identified as its cause, according to a respected British medical journal, making it a stable target for rapidly-produced "antisense" drugs that prime the immune system to prepare it for the SARS virus and then attack it when the victim is infected.
Corvallis, Ore.-based AVI BioPharma CEO Dennis Burger told Congress in sworn testimony May 7 that he believes a compound newly created by the firm "will be effective" against SARS and with FDA help can be ready "in months" for human trials.
"We believe it will be effective," Burger told the House panel.
The drug, currently named AVII-4179, is being tested against SARS samples by the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID) at the U.S.AMRIID facility laboratories at Ft. Detrick, Md., along with other compounds. A vaccine against SARS is also in the works, Dr. David Ho, a co-discoverer of the AIDS virus, told Reuters on Friday, and primate sudies are also underway, the company said last week.
Test results have not yet been announced. Burger did not return telephoned or email requests for comment.
The company has been extremely tight-lipped ever since it provided a sample of the drug to private and federally-funded agencies for testing on May 6, even refusing to provide a copy of Burger's speech to the House session even though it was broadcast live on the Internet. AVII BioPharma stock (AVII) traded lower on the NasdaqNM, down $0.01 at $5.53 at Friday's close and $1.55 off the 52-week high of $7.08 it reached last week.
The study of SARS mutation by a team of scientists in Singapore, published today in a British medical journal, The Lancet, examined SARS coronavirus samples from Canada, China, Hong Kong and Vietnam, four countres especially hard-hit by the virus, which has sickened victims in 29 countries.
Burger told the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health that his company already manufactures five different compounds that are effective against other RNA viruses, including coronavirus murine hepatitis virus, which is a coronavirus, and all have been found safe.
The compounds are created by using information from the newly-completed Human Genome Project and the firm's proprietary antisense technology, which Burger said can create a "key" that fits the "lock" of the virus. The drug works, he said, by blocking the production of its RNA replication template much as a piece of fabric blocks a zipper.
Burger was on one of three panels heard by the subcommittee that included representatives from various companies, including Medarex, GenVec and Computerized Thermal Imaging, that are developing SARS-related diagnostic and pharamceutical tools to fight the disease.
The downside of the reduced level of mutation, scientists said, is that it may mean the gene as it now exists is well-suited to humans and will be hard to fight in that form.