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UW researchers developing cure for new coronavirus

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University of Wisconsin researchers also are investigating the coronavirus outbreak.

MADISON (WKOW) -- The cure for a deadly virus sweeping the globe could come from a UW-Madison lab.

"It could come right from here," said graduate student Nithesh Chandrasekharan. "That's the goal."

Just months into his first year of grad school, Chandrasekharan is tasked with understanding the new coronavirus.

"Overwhelming, but more exciting than overwhelming, I would say," he said.

He's part of a small team of biochemists that have been studying other coronaviruses like SARS and MERS for quite a while.

"We're just starting to shift our focus to the new coronavirus," said Robert Kirchdoerfer, an assistant professor who runs the lab.

His team has created synthetic coronavirus proteins to analyze how the virus attacks cells.

"To try to figure out how to defeat the virus," Kirchdoerfer said.

Because they're only working with small parts of the virus, no one in the lab will catch it -- but hopefully, thanks to their work, fewer people outside of the lab will, too.

"Antiviral drugs don't just appear," Kirchdoerfer said. "That is an enormous effort to develop those."

The work takes a while, but these scientists were able to start working more quickly than with other outbreaks because of how much science and technology have advanced.

Scientists in China uploaded the gene sequence for the virus to the internet a few weeks ago, and as soon as that happened, Kirchdoerfer's team could download it, make their own virus and start learning how it works.

"All of this information being available really accelerates the pace at which we can respond," he said.

Because there are so many coronaviruses out there already, this work will be important for a long time.

"Even if we can't cure this specific one, we can hopefully predict when the next one comes out," Chandrasekharan said. "And then have a faster way to get a remedy from those future viruses."

The team says it could take five to 10 years to develop an antiviral drug, but there are already drugs in the works designed for other coronaviruses that could contain some answers.

And while their team is small, they expect others at UW to start working on the coronavirus soon, as well.