A KEY building block in the Schmallenberg virus could be targeted by antiviral drugs, according to a new study led from the University of Leeds.
The disease, which causes birth defects and stillbirths in sheep, goats and cattle, was first discovered in Germany in late 2011 and has already spread to more than 5,000 farms across Europe.
There is currently no way of treating infected animals, but a study published in Nucleic Acids Research reports that the Schmallenberg virus' nucleocapsid protein, which protects its genetic material, could be its Achilles' heel, an announcement said.
A University of Leeds-led team of virologists and structural biologists used X-ray crystallography and electron microscopy to decipher the three-dimensional shape of the nucleocapsid protein and also to show how it builds the inner workings of the virus itself.
"The protein forms a chain a bit like a necklace that wraps around and protects the RNA, the genetic material of the virus. This chain also recruits other proteins that are vital to the virus' ability to multiply and cause disease," said Dr. John Barr of the University of Leeds Faculty of Biological Sciences and co-leader of the study. "We have developed a very finely detailed picture of the shape of the protein and all the nooks and crannies that it needs to present to other molecules to be able to function."
The Schmallenberg virus appears to be spread by midges. It causes a relatively mild illness in adult animals but is responsible for stillbirths and birth defects in cattle, sheep and goats, the announcement said.
Developing a vaccine for the Schmallenberg virus is a possibility. One already exists for the similar Akabane virus, but this discovery is the first step toward developing a treatment that could be used after an animal is infected.