Friday, August 12, 2011

The Penicillin of Viruses

You know what can turn an oh-my-god-can't-write-to-save-my-life day into a fairly nice one? Good Science News. Promising discoveries! Hope for our Cure-The-Sickness related future!

That's what happened when I found this article on MIT news. A team of researcher from the MIT Lincoln's laboratory developped a new drug that can identify cells infected by virus and terminate them. And that, my friend, is full of awesome.

The Problem with Treating Viruses

Viruses have this badass and terrifying strategy in which they infect the host's cells, hijack their resources and begin to multiply. The cell does have a few defenses to prevent this, but most viruses have found ways to bypass and counter these. Otherwise they wouldn't, you know, still exist.

The point is that once the virus is inside the host cell, it becomes difficult to distinguish from the non-infected cells. We manage to develop specific drugs for specific viruses by hindering their unique ways to act, but viruses have such a vast array of techniques and molecules that it is almost impossible to produce one drug that affects them all.

That is what the MIT's lab achieved. One drug for most viruses.

How the hell?

OK. This is the science part. Let's try and keep it simple. Every cell has DNA, on which we have carry genetic information. In order to access that information, we create an RNA molecule (think of it as a close-cousin of DNA) from the DNA, which is then read and transformed into a protein.

DNA is double-stranded in humans -- you've all seen the double helix image. RNA, however, is single stranded. Just one long string that twists.

Basic human scheme:  Double stranded DNA --> Single stranded RNA --> Protein

Here are the key points.
1. There is never any double stranded RNA in the human process.
2. There is almost always double stranded RNA in the viral duplication.

Todd Rider's drug identifies cells with double-stranded RNA inside them and hits their self-destruct button.*


And you know the best thing about this drug? It's called DRACO. Not just for fun. The acronym means something. It is also badass.

They tested the drug against influenza (your day-to-day cold) and dengue fever (a cousin of Ebola), and it worked. These are two very very very different viruses. At the moment they're trying DRACO on other viruses in mice before moving to bigger animals, and eventually humans. So it's not ready or finished yet, but one can hope.

And for those of you who want to see more of the science, the drug's action mecanism is explained in more details in the article. Plus pictures of their tests. It's neat!

*Yes, there is such a thing in cells. It's one of the most broken mecanism of cancer cells. Self-destruct buttons: not as useless as in sci-fi movies.


  1. Fascinating article you've posted here. Thanks for the science appeals to the geek inside me.

  2. Yay! Another science post!

    I saw an article on this a few days ago, but haven't gotten the chance to read it. This is awesome news!

    Now I can overcome my irrational fear of Ebola. :P

  3. Michael: I know! That article is so fascinating, I can't stop thinking about it since I've read it. I really, really hope the drug will pass all the clinical trials.

    cookie: Hurray! If you want, I can send you an ebola plushie as a congratz. :D

  4. It's like the most awesome plot twist at the end of a novel, and the bad guys are gonna get the crap beat out of them. :)

  5. I don't know much about viruses, but this will only work on ones that produce dsRNA, right? (i.e. it won't work on single-stranded ones or retroviruses)?

    In any case, it's still amazing. Hope everything works out with that drug.

  6. Wow. That's great! I like the idea that a few years down the road I might not have to suffer the flu anymore.

  7. LG: And when you've got a good build-up, isn't that the most satisfying part of any novel? Hero overcoming the odds to kick serious asses.

    GK: Yeah, this only works with virus producing dsRNA, but that 'only' is all RNA viruses except retroviruses. ssRNA viruses will very often, during replication, produce a dsRNA molecule (they use one strand to duplicate the other, which means that the strands are attached for a time).

    I've brushed up on my viruses a bit, and I think the ones who'd escape this drug would be the retroviruses and the DNA viruses (herpes, polyo, hepatite B).

    It might seem like in the end they only have half a solution, but most antibiotics also affect only half of what is present, sometimes less. They are broad tools that help begin treatment quickly, without having to identify the specific virus present.

    So yeah, amazing work. :)

    Sarah: Here's hoping! A lot of things could still go wrong in the testing (unexpected side effects, etc.), but it won't change the fact the technology and raw science works. Even if they need to rework the drug to make it safe for human use, they've come a long way, and I believe this will lead somewhere.

  8. I read about this last week and was totally in love. I'm not good at science, but I'm fascinated by all its wonder. I live for stories like this.

    At the same time that I read about this announcement, I also read that we discovered the darkest planet in the universe. It's darker than coal. Only 1% of all light reflects off the planet, although there is a very faint red glow it which scientists believe is from being so close to its sun that it is red hot on the inside. They believe its darker than dark appearence is due to chemical reactions of chemicals we haven't discovered yet.