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Surprising Science

Gap in Research Funding Holds Back Potential Cure for All Viruses

A new experimental drug can theoretically take out any virus, while leaving healthy cells unharmed. 
Mother and child during the 2002-2004 SARS Outbreak in China.

When Dr. Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin in 1928, it changed the course of human history, improving our lives in ways that we cannot even imagine.  Before, simple infections and wounds could turn deadly and childhood diseases were something much feared. Unfortunately, other than suppressing replication, there is no viral equivalent. Nothing that we know of can destroy viruses outright, other than the immune system itself. That is perhaps, until now.

Dr. Todd Rider, a science prodigy from MIT, discovered a method of destroying practically any virus inside the body. Rider hasn’t invented a way to kill viruses outright, exactly. Instead, he has devised a drug which can locate and destroy cells infected with viruses, before they have a chance to replicate. The drug is known as DRACO (double-stranded RNA activated caspase oligomerizers). Not only does it eliminate infected cells, it leaves healthy ones alone.

Theoretically, it should be able to take out any virus, according to Rider. So far, DRACO has proven effective against 15 of the world’s most notorious viruses including H1N1, dengue fever, polio, the norovirus—which causes stomach flu, and more. It also has the potential to stem an outbreak, such as the Ebola crisis of 2014. How does DRACO target infected cells? The drug can detect a type of RNA which is only present in cells hijacked by a virus.

Lymphocytes of the immune system can be hijacked by viruses and used for replication

Rider came up with the idea after inventing a biosensor which could detect pathogens inside the body in the earliest stages of infection. Though most bacteria can be mopped up easily with the right antibiotic, viral infections prove trickier. Besides a few inhibitor drugs, there wasn’t any way to take them out. To develop a drug, Rider didn’t reinvent the wheel. He turned to the immune system.

When a virus invades a cell, it splices its own double-strand RNA (dsRNA) into the host cell’s DNA. It does this not only to control it, but to use the cell’s own machinery to replicate itself. The host cell doesn’t take this lying down. Instead, it attempts to defend itself by activating certain proteins which stick to dsRNA and try and prevent replication. Unfortunately, viruses have a way to undermine this defense as well.

Rider decided to use dsRNA-binding protein as an indicator of an infected cell. Identifying which cells were infected allows for the strategic employment of a different kind of protein, known to cause cells to commit suicide, a process called apoptosis. There are a number of reasons a cell might do this, such as when it recognizes that it is turning cancerous. DRACO has what is called a “delivery tag,” which means it has proteins that can enter cell membranes. But if dsRNA is not inside, it leaves without any action being taken. If dsRNA is present, DRACO causes the cell to self-destruct.

Ebola. If DRACO is perfected, outbreaks such as the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa may become a thing of the past.

So far, study outcomes have been encouraging. Mostly, these were proof-of-concept observations, using infected animal and human cells in a lab setting. One mouse trial found that subjects infected with H1N1 were cleared of the virus, without side effects or complications. Studies with larger animals would be next, and if all goes well, human trials. That last one is the biggest test, as many promising drugs ultimately end up abandoned in the final stages.    

Though incredibly promising, there is one drawback to Rider’s research, funding. Rider has traveled from lab to lab without securing what he needs to carry on his research. It’s disheartening that such a promising drug would need to be crowdfunded. So far, Rider has raised $60,823 on Indiegogo. Though impressive, $100,000 is needed for research to continue.

If that experiment goes as well as he thinks, Dr. Rider will need two million dollars to move to the third stage. But once there, venture capitalists or Big Pharma may show interest. Rider refers to his current situation as the funding “Valley of Death.”

HIV in green attacking an immune cell. DRACO could possibly cure this and all other viruses.

This is a no man’s land that occurs after a successful proof-of-concept study, where federal funding is no longer adequate to move forward. But the private sector, meaning big pharma, stands on the sidelines, unwilling to move such a drug forward, as there is not enough evidence it will reap sufficient returns.

This speaks to the need for an overhaul of the entire funding process. Despite this enormous setback, Rider has launched another crowdfunding campaign, with the help of some online activists, inspired by his potential breakthrough. With proper funding, DRACO could enter into human trials in under a decade.

To learn more about Dr. Rider and his work click here: 

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