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MIT's Universal Antiviral Could Transform 21st Century Medicine

  [ 65 votes ]   [ 5 Comments ] • August 11, 2011

"DRACOS" drug killed off virus infections in every test, from cold, flu & GI viruses to polio and hemorrhagic fevers - with no harm to uninfected cells.

Most bacterial infections can be treated with antibiotics such as penicillin, discovered decades ago. However, such drugs are useless against viral infections, including influenza, the common cold, and deadly hemorrhagic fevers such as Ebola.

Now, in a development that could transform how viral infections are treated, a team of researchers at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory has designed a drug that can:

• Identify cells that have been infected by any type of virus,

• Then kill those cells to terminate the infection.

Killed Off Every Viral Infection in Tests

In a paper published July 27 in the journal PLoS One, the researchers tested their drug against 15 viruses, and found it was effective against all of them - including rhinoviruses that cause the common cold, H1N1 influenza, a stomach virus, a polio virus, dengue fever and several other types of hemorrhagic fever. [See free full text article, “Broad Spectrum Antiviral Therapeutics”]

The drug works by targeting a type of RNA produced only in cells that have been infected by viruses. “In theory, it should work against all viruses,” says Todd Rider, a senior staff scientist in Lincoln Laboratory’s Chemical, Biological, and Nanoscale Technologies Group who invented the new technology.

Because the technology is so broad-spectrum, it could potentially also be used to combat outbreaks of new viruses, such as the 2003 SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak, Rider says.

Other members of the research team are Lincoln Lab staff members Scott Wick, Christina Zook, Tara Boettcher, Jennifer Pancoast and Benjamin Zusman.

Working to Fill a Big Antiviral Void

Rider had the idea to try developing a broad-spectrum antiviral therapy about 11 years ago, after inventing CANARY (Cellular Analysis and Notification of Antigen Risks and Yields), a biosensor that can rapidly identify pathogens. “If you detect a pathogenic bacterium in the environment, there is probably an antibiotic that could be used to treat someone exposed to that, but I realized there are very few treatments out there for viruses,” he says.

There are a handful of drugs that combat specific viruses, such as the protease inhibitors used to control HIV infection, but these are relatively few in number and susceptible to viral resistance. 

Inspired by Study of Cells' Natural Immune Defense

Rider drew inspiration for his therapeutic agents, dubbed DRACOs (Double-stranded RNA Activated Caspase Oligomerizers), from living cells’ own defense systems.

• When viruses infect a cell, they take over its cellular machinery for their own purpose - that is, creating more copies of the virus. During this process, the viruses create long strings of double-stranded RNA (dsRNA), which is not found in human or other animal cells.

• As part of their natural defenses against viral infection, human cells have proteins that latch onto dsRNA, setting off a cascade of reactions that prevents the virus from replicating itself.

• However, many viruses can outsmart that system by blocking one of the steps further down the cascade.

• Rider had the idea to combine a dsRNA-binding protein with another protein that induces cells to undergo apoptosis (programmed cell suicide) - launched, for example, when a cell determines it is en route to becoming cancerous.

• Therefore, when one end of the DRACO binds to dsRNA, it signals the other end of the DRACO to initiate cell suicide.

Combining those two elements is a “great idea” and a very novel approach, says Karla Kirkegaard, professor of microbiology and immunology at Stanford University. “Viruses are pretty good at developing resistance to things we try against them, but in this case, it’s hard to think of a simple pathway to drug resistance,” she says.

Uninfected Cells Unharmed

Each DRACO also includes a “delivery tag,” taken from naturally occurring proteins, that allows it to cross cell membranes and enter any human or animal cell. However, if no dsRNA is present, DRACO leaves the cell unharmed.

Infected Test Animals Treated & Cured Without Harm

Most of the tests reported in this study were done in human and animal cells cultured in the lab, but the researchers also tested DRACO in mice infected with the H1N1 influenza virus. When mice were treated with DRACO, they were completely cured of the infection. The tests also showed that DRACO itself is not toxic to mice.

Licensing of Technology to Pave Way for Human Trials

The researchers are now testing DRACO against more viruses in mice and beginning to get promising results. Rider says he hopes to license the technology for trials in larger animals and for eventual human clinical trials.

This work is funded by a grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the New England Regional Center of Excellence for Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases, with previous funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Defense Threat Reduction Agency, and Director of Defense Research & Engineering (now the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering).

Source: Massachusetts Institute of Technology News release, Aug 10, 2011

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Article Comments Post a Comment

Posted by: thecatswhiskers
Aug 11, 2011
I hardly dare hope ........ :)
Reply Reply

Re:DRACOS testing
Posted by: hopefullme4all
Aug 13, 2011
It could help, have some good feelings about this...thank you all for the research...including our little creatures. Gods speed!
Reply Reply

Posted by: mrtibbs
Aug 16, 2011
I can probably speak for the majority of people diagnosed with "Fibromyalgia". Test the drug on this group first. I truly believe it is caused by an unknown virus and the symptoms not only change continously but grow more intense and debilitating. We desperately need a cure. The drugs that are alvailable to use now on help mask some of the symptoms.
Reply Reply

Sign me up!
Posted by: merleyroy
Aug 17, 2011
This sounds like Lily the Pink's "Medicinal Compound" from the Scaffold's song (albeit specific to viruses)! Sadly, the trials will take years to complete, and in the meantime many more lives might be lost to suicide. I just hope Fibromyalgia sufferers get an early chance to volunteer for the human trials when they eventually start.
Reply Reply

Posted by: nl2
Aug 24, 2011
WoW!! This DRACO is fantastic news if it will kill all or most viruses. I honestly believe and am convinced that Chronic Fatigue Syndrome & Fibromyalgia are both viral (virus) infections that live throughout our bodies to totally distrupt our entire well-being (from migraines, cognitive dysfunction, exhaustion, body aches and pains, etc.) just to name a few symptoms of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Fibromyalgia sufferers. It has been said 20 years ago it was a virus but I never ever believed a virus could do this much damage to a person's life. A few months ago, I was taking 1500 mg of amoxicillian a day for a sinus infection. After 3 days I thought and felt like a brand new woman for about 1 week! During that time, I did not experience headaches, migraines, exhaustion, fatigue, cognitive dysfunction, etc. Of course, I could not continue on that particular dose because it would be damaging to my system. After a few days I completed my prescription all those horrible, monsterous symptoms returned and has once again negatively impacted my fragile life. We need an effective and safe antiviral medicine for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Epstein Barr Virus. I pray and hope the scientists, researchers, doctors, somebody, anybody, etc. immediately find a cure for us who suffer from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Fibromyalgia. There is an answer and a treatment out there!! We just need to keep finding it.....
Reply Reply

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