Newly-discovered SARS relative bears city’s name



Having something named after you is usually considered an honor. But New Haven residents probably will not be bragging about the newest thing named after their city — a virus related to SARS.

The New Haven coronavirus — named after the site of its discovery — was recently isolated by two Yale pediatricians. Unlike SARS, New Haven coronavirus does not attack the respiratory tract, but Drs. Jeffrey Kahn and Frank Esper said it induces coughing, fever and general malaise and could be an underlying bacterial cause of Kawasaki disease.

KD is the most common cause of acquired heart disease in children in the developed world and may cause eye infection, redness of the mouth or throat, swollen lymph nodes and, in extreme cases, heart failure.

Coronaviruses in general have become a research focus ever since the SARS epidemic, Esper said, because they sometimes cause respiratory diseases such as SARS. Before the discovery of the New Haven coronavirus, there were two known human coronaviruses — OC43 and 229E. These viruses are all characterized by an outer crown-shaped envelope.

“Research on respiratory diseases has gained more popularity since SARS and especially since we think that for about 50 percent of the cases we see, we do not know their causes,” Kahn said. “It could be unknown viruses or molecular organisms or, as we have found, new coronaviruses.”

Kahn and Esper’s experiment involved isolating coronaviruses from pediatric respiratory samples, such as nasal secretion swabs and nasal saline washes. The samples were investigated by producing multiple copies of the viruses’ genetic material and determining which segments matched the genetic sequence of a coronavirus. In samples that tested positive for the previously unidentified coronavirus, there was a notable correlation with the presence of KD.

“Children have runny noses, coughs and everything else because their immune systems have not been primed, and that’s why [their samples] are good to study this on,” Esper said. “Not only do we have their samples archived, but they are more susceptible to this.”

Yale School of Medicine Dean Robert Alpern said Kahn and Esper’s discovery could lead direct future researchers to a cure for KD.

“Finding the etiology of KD is a major step forward towards finding treatment for this disease,” he said.

A similar finding has been made by a team of researchers in the Netherlands, which is named Netherlands human coronavirus. Esper said the Dutch team’s discovery shows that these viruses are present on both sides of the Atlantic and most likely the rest of the world.

Future studies should examine how similar or different these viruses are, as well as the epidemiology of the new coronaviruses, Khan said. Scientists should try to determine who is easily struck by the virus and if there is a seasonal variance, he said.

Colleagues of Kahn and Esper have acknowledged the discovery as an advancement in both the field of respiratory infectious disease and in general medicine.

“I think what their discovery shows is that even diseases we never thought would be caused by infectious agents may now have infectious underpinnings, such as KD,” Yale Pediatrics chair Margaret Hostetter said. “This is a very insightful epidemiologic investigation.”

Previous findings have linked stomach ulcers to the Helicobacter pylori bacterium and human herpes virus-8 to Kaposi’s sarcoma, a cancer that was among the first recognized opportunistic infections in Human Immunodeficiency Virus patients.

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