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Persistence pays for Taiwan virologist who helped stop SARS

Once ignored, Michael Ming-Chiao Lai's research saved countless lives

Michael Ming-Chiao Lai stands at the forefront of coronavirus research. (Photo by Toshiyuki Kumagai)

Michael Ming-Chiao Lai, Taiwan, Distinguished Research Fellow, Institute of Molecular Biology, Academia Sinica -- Winner for science and technology

TAIPEI -- As a young virologist, Michael Ming-Chiao Lai hoped his work would aid society "at some point." The critical moment came in 2003, when SARS sent Asia into a panic.

Lai, today a distinguished research fellow at Taiwan's Academia Sinica, graduated from the National Taiwan University College of Medicine in 1968. He elected to study molecular biology abroad, at the University of California, Berkeley, because he wanted to shed light on genes and "unravel the mystery of life."

By 1983, Lai was a professor at the University of Southern California. He helped explain how hepatitis C causes liver cancer, and contributed to treatment methods, but he struggled with his primary research subject: coronaviruses.

These pathogens -- so named because their shape brings to mind the sun's corona -- are the culprits behind serious infectious diseases like severe acute respiratory syndrome and Middle East respiratory syndrome, which struck in 2015. But they used to be considered "minor viruses that caused common colds in humans, and everybody ignored them," Lai said.

It was hard to watch his classmates and colleagues snag large grants and global attention. "I was impatient, and at one time felt sorry for my wife, who had accompanied me to the U.S." Still, he pressed on, with one idea stuck in his mind. 

Among RNA viruses, coronaviruses have especially large, complex genomes. "They have ample room for their nature to change, and perhaps they could turn into serious pathogens," Lai thought.

Some 30 years after he began his research, he was proved right.

In March 2003, while Lai was attending a conference in Australia, the phone rang in his hotel room. "SARS has been determined to be caused by a coronavirus. Exactly what kind of virus is that?" asked the caller, an American reporter who had tracked Lai down.

SARS, which had started in China in November 2002, was ripping mainly through Asia. Lai returned to Taiwan and was appointed vice president of Academia Sinica. He set about sharing his findings on the structure and nature of coronaviruses.

SARS infected more than 8,000 people and killed nearly 800, but by July 2003, the virus was declared contained. "The spread of the disease was quickly checked because of Lai's advice," remarked Chen Chien-jen, Taiwan's minister of health during the crisis and now the island's vice president.

Lai is quick to deflect the credit. "One scientific discovery is a gift from the accumulated work of hundreds of researchers," he said. Collaboration is crucial, he said, because "viruses are smarter than researchers."

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