You asked, we answered. See our Q&A from June 2016 by clicking HERE.
Q. What is DRACO?
A. DRACO (Double-stranded RNA Activated Caspase Oligomerizer) is a novel treatment for viral infections. Unlike most existing therapeutics, DRACO should be effective against a very broad spectrum of viruses, including many that are currently untreatable.
Q. Who owns DRACO?
A. Dr. Rider is the sole inventor of DRACO, and his patents are owned by MIT, which is supportive of Dr. Rider’s continued development of DRACO outside MIT.
Q. Who is Dr. Rider?
A. Dr. Todd Rider studied both biology and engineering at MIT and received his Ph.D. in 1995. He has spent his whole career developing novel ways to combine biology and engineering, in order to genetically engineer new methods of detecting, diagnosing, treating, and preventing infectious diseases.
Q. Where is DRACO research occurring?
A. While most of Dr. Rider’s DRACO research to date has been done at MIT, he is setting up a new laboratory in Massachusetts to continue the development and testing of DRACO.
Q. How does DRACO work?
A. Viruses must infect human (or animal) cells in order to replicate, and virtually all virus-infected cells contain long double-stranded RNA, whereas healthy human and animal cells do not. DRACO molecules detect that viral double-stranded RNA inside infected cells and then cause those cells to commit suicide before the viruses within them can replicate and spread to other cells. DRACOs do not harm uninfected cells. Because DRACOs are only looking for the general structure of double-stranded RNA that is made by a wide variety of viruses, DRACOs should be effective against a broad spectrum of viruses, in contrast to other treatments that only work against very specific viruses. By efficiently eliminating infected cells, DRACOs may also be able to permanently cure some viral infections that can currently only be controlled but not cured.
Q. Which viruses might DRACO be able to treat/ cure?
A. Thus far we have tested DRACO against 18 different viruses in cells, and 4 of those viruses in mice. In these initial experiments, DRACO has been effective against all 18 viruses, including several different strains of rhinovirus (the common cold virus), multiple strains of influenza (flu), two adenovirus strains, dengue hemorrhagic fever, and several others. In principle, DRACO should be effective against a number of major, clinically relevant viruses such as herpesviruses, retroviruses, hepatitis viruses, and others.
However, thus far Dr. Rider has not had funding to conduct experiments with those viruses to determine if DRACO is actually effective against them. Therefore we would like to raise funding to test and optimize DRACO therapeutics against some of these viruses in cells.
Although DRACOs have not yet been tested against other viruses, their broad-spectrum activity may mean that they might also be effective against HIV, HSV (cold sores and genital herpes), herpes zoster virus (chickenpox/shingles), HTLV, Ebola, MERS, SARS, avian influenza (bird flu), and other major viruses. DRACOs might be effective against viruses that are currently untreatable, or that can currently only be controlled but not cured by existing drugs. Because of their broad-spectrum activity, DRACOs might be useful in treating viruses that have become resistant to existing antiviral drugs, or even in promptly treating outbreaks of newly emerged viruses (like MERS).
Q. Which viruses might DRACO not treat/ cure?
A. So far DRACO has been effective against all 18 viruses with which Dr. Rider has tested it. In principle, the DRACO approach should be effective with virtually all viruses, although we certainly need to verify that experimentally, and optimize DRACOs against other viruses as needed.
Q. What viruses has DRACO worked against in the lab?
A. Thus far we have tested DRACO against 18 different viruses in human and animal cells, and 4 of those viruses in mice. In these initial experiments, DRACO has been effective against all 18 viruses, including 4 different strains of rhinovirus (the common cold virus), 2 strains of influenza (flu), a reovirus (stomach virus), 2 adenovirus strains, 3 coronavirus strains, a mouse polio virus, dengue hemorrhagic fever, Amapari and Tacaribe arenaviruses, and 2 Guama bunyavirus strains.
Q. Is DRACO safe?
A. DRACO is designed to kill only virus-infected cells, not healthy uninfected cells. Most viruses would kill those infected cells anyway, then spread to infect and kill even more cells, so DRACO should terminate the infection early and save countless cells that would otherwise be infected and killed by viruses. In initial tests, DRACO has been nontoxic in 13 different human and animal cell types, as well as in mice. Of course, much more testing will be required to ensure that DRACO is as safe as possible before it can hopefully advance to later experiments in humans.
Q. If it’s so great, why isn’t DRACO funded?
A. DRACO research has entered what is known as the “Valley of Death.” Modest amounts of funding from the National Institutes of Health have enabled the previous proof-of-concept experiments in cells and mice, but that funding grant is now over. Major pharmaceutical companies have the resources and expertise to carry new drugs like DRACO through the manufacturing scale-up, large-scale animal trials, and human trials required for FDA approval. However, before committing any of their own money, those companies want to see that DRACOs have already been shown to be effective against major clinically relevant viruses (such as members of the herpesvirus family), not just the proof-of-concept viruses (such as rhinovirus) that were previously funded by NIH. Thus the Valley of Death is the financial and experimental gap between the previously funded NIH proof-of-concept experiments and the threshold for convincing major pharmaceutical companies to advance DRACOs toward human trials.
Q. How much money do you need to advance DRACO? What will that money be used for?
A. This campaign has been set up to raise the funding necessary to bridge the Valley of Death for DRACO research. With your assistance, we hope to raise enough funding to provide a total of $2 million dollars over four years, in order to test and optimize DRACOs against clinically relevant viruses in human cells. If successful, the results of those experiments should persuade pharmaceutical companies and other major sponsors to commit their own resources to advance DRACOs through large-scale animal trials and hopefully human trials. Without your assistance, DRACOs may never progress further, and their potential to revolutionize the treatment of viral infections may remain unfulfilled.
Q. What does the development timeline look like? When might the first human try DRACO?
A. If we can successfully demonstrate and optimize DRACOs against clinically relevant viruses in cells, we believe those results should persuade pharmaceutical companies to carry DRACOs through large-scale animal trials and hopefully into human trials. The timeline depends on funding levels (including how much funding pharmaceutical companies are willing to commit later) and whether any unforeseen scientific difficulties arise in the experiments. However, if everything goes well, we hope that DRACO could enter human trials within a decade or even less.
Q. How did Dr. Rider come up with the idea behind DRACO?
A. Because there were so few existing antiviral therapeutics, and those tended to be specific just for individual viruses or even just particular strains of individual viruses, Dr. Rider was motivated to develop new antiviral therapeutics that would be effective against a very broad spectrum of viruses. Rather than trying to invent something from scratch, he decided to borrow from what nature has already invented. Our cells have natural ways of detecting viral double-stranded RNA, and natural ways of triggering suicide in certain cells. Dr. Rider invented DRACO to combine those two natural systems and kill virus-infected cells.
Q. Why should I donate?
A. Since the initial scientific results with DRACO were first announced, Dr. Rider has heard from countless people who suffer from viruses that are currently untreatable, or for which current therapeutics are inadequate. DRACO has the potential to help those people, as well as millions of other people like them around the world. Just as the development of antibiotics completely revolutionized the treatment and prevention of bacterial infections in the mid-20th century, DRACO has the potential to completely revolutionize the treatment and prevention of viral infections in the 21st century. DRACO still requires several years of hard work and a considerable amount of funding to support that, and there is always the scientific risk that it may not work out as intended. However, without your support to continue DRACO work now, we may never know what DRACO could have accomplished to fight viruses and potentially help people alive now and in future generations.