A team of scientists has created a computer simulation of an enzyme called NS3 that plays an important role in helping the hepatitis C virus replicate and spread in the body. The discovery should aid the search for drugs that uniquely target the virus.

The scientists, from the International School of Advanced Studies (SISSA) in Trieste, Italy, describe their work in the journal Nucleic Acids Research.

As scientists begin to understand more about how a particular virus replicates, the better the chances of finding drugs that stop the virus spreading.

The team decided to analyze NS3 because it is specific to the hepatitis C virus. They note that a drug that targets the enzyme selectively would not cause side effects in the rest of the body.

But to be able to target NS3, scientists need to know more about how it behaves. So far, the only knowledge has come from snapshots - still images - of the enzyme obtained through crystallography studies.

The new computer simulation offers researchers the first ever opportunity to observe NS3 behavior as if watching a moving film.

NS3 is a helicase - an enzyme that interacts with the virus' RNA (viruses do not have DNA, their genetic code is held in RNA).

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