Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America

Protease-mediated enhancement of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus infection.

PMID 16116101


A unique coronavirus severe acute respiratory syndrome-coronavirus (SARS-CoV) was revealed to be a causative agent of a life-threatening SARS. Although this virus grows in a variety of tissues that express its receptor, the mechanism of the severe respiratory illness caused by this virus is not well understood. Here, we report a possible mechanism for the extensive damage seen in the major target organs for this disease. A recent study of the cell entry mechanism of SARS-CoV reveals that it takes an endosomal pathway. We found that proteases such as trypsin and thermolysin enabled SARS-CoV adsorbed onto the cell surface to enter cells directly from that site. This finding shows that SARS-CoV has the potential to take two distinct pathways for cell entry, depending on the presence of proteases in the environment. Moreover, the protease-mediated entry facilitated a 100- to 1,000-fold higher efficient infection than did the endosomal pathway used in the absence of proteases. These results suggest that the proteases produced in the lungs by inflammatory cells are responsible for high multiplication of SARS-CoV, which results in severe lung tissue damage. Likewise, elastase, a major protease produced in the lungs during inflammation, also enhanced SARS-CoV infection in cultured cells.