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The race is on for researchers to find a therapy or vaccine effective against Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS. Originating in Saudi Arabia, the viral illness has already spread around the world, with the most recent outbreak occurring in South Korea where the death toll has so far hit 33. But promisingly, a team of scientists has just produced the most promising candidate treatment yet to tackle the disease.

The researchers from the University of Maryland School of Medicine have succeeded in producing two new therapeutic antibodies that have been demonstrated to protect and treat animal models for MERS viral infection. The proteins work by directly targeting and neutralizing the virus, rendering it harmless.

“While early, this is very exciting, and has real potential to help MERS patients,” explained Professor Matthew Frieman, who led the research published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “We hope that clinical study will progress on these two antibodies to see whether they can eventually be used to help humans infected with the virus.”

First reported in 2012, MERS causes acute respiratory illness, including fever, coughs, and shortness of breath. It has been reported in 26 countries, but most of the cases and 400 deaths have occurred in Saudi Arabia. It's thought that the disease originated here after the virus jumped from camels to people, which are the primary reservoir of this pathogen, though now it can spread from person to person. Classed as a coronavirus, it belongs to a large family of viruses that includes the common cold, SARS, and many carried by bats, which are also thought to transmit the disease.

In order to test the candidate antibodies, the researchers also developed a new strain of mice which they hope will help them understand better how the virus functions. These so-called "humanized" mice are designed to express parts of the human immune system, which is necessary because mice are not usually susceptible to MERS. "This new mouse model will significantly boost our ability to study potential treatments and help scientists to understand how the virus causes disease in people,” says Frieman. 

While these findings are certainly encouraging, the road to an effective treatment is long and often difficult. Unless some fast tracking system is put in place such as that seen for the Ebola treatment last year, which was also tested on primates first and not mice, the MERS antibodies are unlikely to be rolled out anytime soon, while the outbreak in South Korea rumbles on.

“Professor Frieman's work provides the first glimmer of hope that we can treat and cure this threatening virus,” said Dean Albert Reece, who is also the vice president for Medical Affairs at the University of Maryland. “I know that they will continue to work hard to see whether these compounds can take the next steps to clinical trials.” 

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