Every year, millions of people around the world die from diseases caused by viruses. Many of you may be wondering why so many people die of infectious diseases when modern medicine has developed so many vaccines: vaccines can only treat certain strains of viruses, and need to be constantly updated in order to keep up with the rapid evolution of viruses. Then you may ask, “but what about antibiotics? They can indiscriminately treat all kinds of bacterial diseases.” It’s important to clarify that antibiotics–such as penicillin–only solve half of the problem of widespread infectious diseases: they can only eradicate bacterial infections. Viruses have a different biological makeup than bacteria, as well as different cell-infecting mechanisms, and therefore require a different kind of agent to destroy them. Up until recently, there wasn’t an antiviral equivalent to the first highly effective antibiotic, penicillin. Now, the medical world is finding hope in DRACO, “a superprotein that may eradicate viral diseases” . Unlike vaccines and antiviral therapy, the other two “weapons” against viruses, DRACO is active against virtually all kinds of viruses. It is for this reason that DRACO is being compared to the virus-combatting version of penicillin, and its implementation may very well bring about an immunological revolution in the treatment of patients with viral diseases.
Not to be confused with Draco Malfoy, DRACO is an acronym for Double-stranded RNA Activated Caspase Oligomerizer: a microscopic superprotein bioengineered by Todd Rider and his team of researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (If you’re not a biology nerd and are puzzled by these strange terms, don’t worry about it for now; DRACO is named exactly for its intracellular mechanisms, which I will clarify later on.) DRACO is a unique virus-killing agent because it not only recognizes viruses, it forces virally infected cells to commit suicide. This is important because viruses are dependent on host cells for reproduction, and if a virus’s host cell dies, the virus inevitably can’t finish its “reproductive” cycle. In case you are unfamiliar with the cycle of viral replication, here is a video covering the basic elements of the process. Pay special attention as the virus (in this case, the flu virus) integrates itself in to the genetic material of the host cell.
As DRACO patrols the body, it recognizes the presence of double-stranded RNA (dsRNA), and is drawn to cells that are expressing dsRNA. This is because virtually every virus uses dsRNA at some point in its life cycle: dsRNA composes the genome of many viruses, and in other cases, viruses briefly convert a host cell’s DNA into an intermediate state of dsRNA in order to insert itself into the cell’s genome and perpetuate its own replication. When two or more DRACOs recognize the viral dsRNA, they release a caspase–an enzyme that cues the host cell to commit suicide. Even though DRACO causes individual cells to commit suicide, it has been found to be non-toxic in 11 mammalian species.
Most importantly, DRACO has cured 15 different viruses so far in laboratory settings, such as rhinovirus (the common cold), H1N1 (swine flu), and adenovirus (respiratory infections). There is even a possibility that DRACO will be able to cure HIV if administered early enough. The image below conveys the effectiveness of DRACO treatments in different kinds of viruses:
Overall, DRACO has shown a lot of potential to be the antiviral equivalent of penicillin. Though it still has to go through more intensive experimentation and testing, there is a strong possibility that DRACO will be available to the public within the next decade. Look out viruses, because DRACO and the relentless scientists behind it are out to get you. There will be no survivors.
Broad Spectrum Antiviral Therapeutics, Plosone
DRACO: The Ultimate Virus Killer? Science Illustrated
New drug could treat nearly any viral infection, MIT