Science News

Scientists endeavor to eradicate all viruses with a universal treatment

By Sarah Kearns

DRACO stands for Double-stranded RNA Activated Caspase Oligomerizer, and it’s an amazing tool that has the potential to treat and cure Ebola, Zika, and HIV in one shot. The incredible part is that the method of treatment goes down to fundamental attributes that only viruses have, the long double stranded RNA. Because only viruses have this, and all viruses have this, the DRACO method could lead to a universal treatment.

Trouble with Viruses

So far, there have been very few methods at treating and eradicating viruses. Typically drug development focuses on protein regulation because polypeptides can be easier to characterize and understand. Compared to bacteria, viral DNA produce far fewer proteins and, in turn, fewer potential targets. Often times, viruses will adapt and modify themselves to avoid being killed by vaccines developed. When strains of viruses of bacteria alter their DNA, the proteins they produce are also changed just slightly enough that the developed drug will not stop it from spreading.

For some examples HIV, has a very high genetic variability because it replicates so quickly which results in a high mutation rate that’s as high as a few per hour. The “superbug” bacteria known as MRSA, a drug resistant strain of Staphylococcus aureus (a bacteria found in your respiratory tract) is resistant to a lot of antibacterial drugs — even though it’s not a virus, it’s a good representative of what it means to be drug resistant. Even more extreme, very deadly viruses like Ebola, still do not have a vaccine that’s been approved for humans.

Additionally, given the traditional method, each strain needs its own vaccine. This is why it’s suggested that you get the flu shot once a year, not only because it too has the ability to evolutionarily adapt against drugs, but also because the body’s immune response declines over time. Even though this makes drug development very difficult, why it happens is due to self-preservation. If you imagine the virus as a human instead of a killing agent, you can understand that it replicates and mutates so quickly to protect itself.

Universal Treatment

To repeat for emphasis, there are many types of viruses that cause the human race harm and because they each have such a different DNA, and thus proteins or good drug targets. This new approach, DRACO, uses biological pathways that are common for all virus issues such that there would be one type of pharmacological treatment for every virus.

Dr. Todd Rider, a senior scientist in MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory’s Chemical, Biological, and Nanoscale Technologies Group, has been a front-runner in making progress in developing new techniques to detect and cure large ranges of viruses. Being the project head, and inventor of, PANACEA (Pharmacological Augmentation of Nonspecific Anti-pathogen Cellular Enzymes and Activities), he invented the method now called DRACO (for Double-stranded RNA Activated Caspase Oligomerizer). If it’s not obvious, he really likes acronyms and wants to find a solution to all diseases which he describes and confesses in this video.

The RIDER lab’s DRACO approach combines two processes that occur naturally in the cell, the first one uses a virus detection pathway, the second a programmable destruction of the cell.

Viruses have both single and double stranded RNA genomes. In the human body, it is latter that’s responsible for triggering a defence system against virus. As such, it is the double stranded RNA (dsRNA) that is the initial target. Even though mammalian cells can produce such helices, they are significantly shorter (by at least 22 base pairs) than the dsRNA allowing the cell to identify each type reliably.

The second biological pathway used is intracellular apoptosis signaling. This is the way a cell initiates self-destruction. It is not always intuitive, but triggering the cell to lyse (controlled breakdown) can actually save the cell some energy. When all the components of the cell are broken up into tiny pieces, it saves the cell from having to discriminate between functional and non-functional pathways. By essentially restarting and making good building blocks available, the cell is able to recycle all the parts without having to waste time.

When two DRACO molecules identify and bind to viral dsRNA, it causes a change in the cell that leads to the binding of multiple apoptosis signaling molecules. This means that the cell would be terminated before it has the chance to replicate and thus end the disease-spreading and, more importantly, get rid of the virus entirely from the body.

So far the RIDER Institute has gotten funding from establishments like the NIH, but just for proof of concept. They have literally shown that the DRACO method successfully treats viral infections in vitro (in a cell culture in a petri dish) the common cold, and hemorrhagic fever.

The virus kills untreated cells (bottom left), but we see that DRACO can cure the infected cell population (bottom right) and is not toxic in untreated cells (upper right). The left (yellow) set of images shows the rhinovirus in humans cells and the right (red) set is hemorrhagic fever in monkey cells.

2016-09-15-2It is exciting because it means that, once developed, DRACO will get rid of the common cold. Yes, no more sniffles and nasal congestion ever again. But, because the mechanism of DRACO is ubiquitous to any virus, it means that it could stop the spread of HIV. Yes, a cure for AIDS. Even though this method is very promising method with huge life saving capabilities.

The virus kills untreated cells (bottom left), but we see that DRACO can cure the infected cell population (bottom right) and is not toxic in untreated cells (upper right). The left (yellow) set of images shows the rhinovirus in humans cells and the right (red) set is hemorrhagic fever in monkey cells.

How you can help

This project still needs funding to get to test more viruses in different cell lines and eventually get to human trials. The really cool thing is that you can help! They have a crowdfunding page where anyone can give a one time or recurring donation to further their research goals and get their therapy to human trials. You can play a role in advancing a treatment that will save millions of lives around the world.

Take Away

Even though most viruses mutate very quickly and produce few drug targets, focusing on their universal trait of double stranded RNA researchers can develop a ubiquitous therapy to kill each and every strain. The development of DRACO, has appeared to be very effective, safe, and promising having annihilated the common cold in the human cell model. And we should do our part, if we are able, to help support the RIDER Institute’s efforts and donate to their project to literally end all viruses. Totally worthwhile!


Sarah Kearns is a science writer and practicing scientist of biochemistry. She is also the author of Eve Reviews and a contributor for The Systems Scientist. You can connect with her directly in the comments section and follow her on Twitter.

You can also follow The Systems Scientist on Twitter or Facebook as well.




Copyright ©2016 – The Systems Scientist


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