Friday, August 12, 2011

DRACO - The Virus Hunter


Viruses invade our cells and force them to make copies of
the virus. (Grey represents a normal cell, Orange represents
changes made to the cell by a virus, in this case, HIV)
Scientists at MIT have developed a new technology that shows great promise for treating a wide variety of viral infections. DRACO (Double-stranded RNA Activated Caspase Oligomerizers) mimics the body’s natural defense against virus infection, and improves upon it.

Why are viruses so difficult to kill?

As anyone who has suffered with the common cold (a rhinovirus) knows, there is no easy way to get well quickly. Unfortunately, because viruses have very unusual characteristics and like to hide inside our cells, they are very skilled at making us sick and the body has a really difficult time attacking them properly.

Unlike bacteria, viruses are tiny and are not capable of reproducing or surviving on their own. Some scientists wonder if they are even alive, but most think they probably are because they can infect cells and once inside a cell they can use the cell to reproduce themselves. This is something only living things can do.

Viruses are capable of reproducing themselves incredibly quickly. This allows them to mutate very fast and, much like how bacteria evolve resistance to antibiotics, mutant viruses survive our natural immune response and multiply, creating new strains. Every year or so, new flu shots come out because the influenza virus mutates slightly to resist our natural defenses (antibodies from the previous year’s strain).


What is so exciting about DRACO?

The DRACO system tags virus infected cells, and uses a protein to signal that it’s time for the cell to die through a process called apoptosis. When their reproductive factory inside your cells is destroyed, they are eliminated and rendered impotent at the same time.

DRACO is capable of recognizing viral proteins in infected cells because our cells are forced, by the virus, to create long strings of double stranded RNA (dsRNA), which our bodies do not normally produce. When one “side” of the DRACO system bonds to the dsRNA in a cell, the other side chemically activates and triggers the protein that kills the infected cells. This process kills off infected cells, and safely ignores healthy ones, since without the dsRNA, DRACO does not activate.

The creators believe that viruses will not be able to develop a resistance to DRACO because it doesn’t attack the viruses directly. Draco kills off cells before they have a chance to reproduce the virus in any meaningful amount. Without the living cells as reproduction factories, the virus cannot reproduce to a number which will allow it to overwhelm our natural immune system, and make us sick. Since DRACO doesn’t target specific viruses, but rather the method of replication of almost all known viruses, it appears broad enough to be applied to almost any viral disease.


DRACO + more research = the end to the common cold, flu, pandemics, and AIDS?

Maybe!  

The DRACO system shows a lot of promise, though it is only in preliminary testing phases. Tests have already been run on animal cells, animals, and human cells (cultured in a lab). In tests so far, DRACO succeeded in curing the infections of H1N1 influenza (bird flu), dengue virus (dengue fever), polio virus, several types of hemorrhagic fever, and even rhinovirus (the common cold). In fact, every single virus that has yet faced off against DRACO has lost...WOW!

The researchers at MIT have created what appears to be an elegant and highly effective means of neutralizing viruses. It will take time and many clinical trials to know if this exciting work will become a safe and effective treatment for patients. Unfortunately, not every new scientific breakthrough turns out to show the same promise that it does in the laboratory, but since animals trials have been successful, it brings us that much closer to this becoming a reality. If DRACO pans out in clinical trials, this could easily be the greatest single leap forward ever discoverd in anti-viral research. Imagine a day when the common cold is history, flu epidemics are a thing of the past and Polio and HIV are completely curable diseases!

(For more information on Bacterial Mutation and Bacterial Resistance see our post Antibiotic Resistance: Bacteria are winning the battle against antibiotics faster than we can invent them).


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Researched and written by Dr. Rebecca Malamed, M.D. with assistance from Mr. Malcolm Potter.

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