The team, from the US Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) and the University of North Carolina (UNC) studied the virus that causes Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, which is caused by a coronavirus.
MERS is much less common, but much more lethal, than Covid-19.
The study, published in the journal mBio, analysed tens of thousands of measurements in laboratory of proteins, molecular messengers and other signals that occur after infection.
The researchers pinpointed a molecular process, part of the body’s quality-control machinery, that plays a central role in causing damage from a coronavirus infection.
They then searched a vast database of compounds and identified one known as AMG PERK 44 that put a halt to virus reproduction in human tissue in the laboratory.
The team also found the compound has a strong effect in mice infected with the virus. The compound boosted lung function and reduced lung damage and weight loss in the mice, particularly in male mice, according to the researchers.
“Studies like this help us learn more about how deadly respiratory viruses operate, how they do what they do, why they attack certain parts of the lung and not others,” said virologist Amy Sims, one of two first coauthors of the paper from PNNL, along with Hugh Mitchell.
The scientists noted that it is far too soon to know whether the compound could help patients as it is not currently used as a drug. The results of the study are most useful as part of a broader effort to learn more about respiratory diseases, they added.
“Coronavirus infections cause complex disease phenotypes, and new strategies are needed to disentangle which host pathways are contributing to the development of severe, life-threatening outcomes,” Ralph Baric from UNC added.