I’ve always been fascinated by viruses for some reason. Perhaps the simple yet elegant and deadly design have drawn me to them. Or maybe it’s how “smart” they are. Able to mutate and foil our attempts at stopping them relatively easily. I was enthralled by the books And Band Played On and The Hotzone when I read them as an underg
rad and very much enjoyed the nitty gritty details learned in my biochem and medical school courses later on. So I was excited when Wired magazine had a full feature article on several new promising antiviral medications this past month. Note that Wired is not a medical magizine, but rather a magazine geared to those that are interested in general things that are just plain interesting and whch are of a scientific or technological nature. Other articles in this issue dealt with the NSA super spy center out in the Utah desert, the difficutly is building prosthetic limbs, a story about the creator of LinkedIN and other social networking sites, and an article which attempted to answer the age old question of “Could a US Marine Battallion destroy the Entire Roman Army” (If I had a nickle for every time I have played out that scenario in my head….hello nerd-dom).
Apparently three exciting new meds are in the works that have been shown to be promising in combating viruses. Not just against a specific virus, like how HAART targets HIV, or tamiflu targets influenza, but rather ALL viruses. These could be major game changers. Much like how penicillin was to anti biotics. Up until now, most antiviral drugs have tended to work by interfering with the viruses themselves, and blocking their ability to function and replicate. Basically these three meds works three new ways, each of which is novel and resistant to the viruses ability to rapidly mutate it’s genome, an ability that has thwarted most, if not all past antivirals. The key features that they all share is that these new antivirals focus on the host, not on the virus, thus they are immune to the virus’s ability to rapidly change itself.
1. The first approach targets the proteins in the human cells which manufacture virus shells (the “jacket” shell surrounds the RNA inside the core of the virus). Basically the virus commandeers these host proteins to do their dirty work. Slave labor if you will. This drug though, binds to these host proteins and prevents them from “assisting” the virus and thus preventing it from replecating. This drug, called Prosetta, appears to be promising, as unlike past antivirals like Tamiflu, it’s difficult, if not impossible, for viruses to evolve a way to assemble themselves if their host’s proteins won’t cooperate. Remember, viruses have no proteins of their own, only RNA surrounded by the “jacket”
2. The second approach targets interferons, the bodies own natural first l
ine fighters of viruses. Essentially the idea is to accelerate the bodies own virus killing powers. Interferons are the bodies way of essentially saying “HEY, there’s an infection going on here, man the battle stations”. The problem though, is that interferons are short lived molecules that aren’t often able to keep up with an overwheming attack by a virus. But synthetic interferons have recently been created that last days, instead of hours and have been shown to rapidly decreases the length of infection.
3. The third and perhaps most radical approach revolves around research that has developed a drug, that is able to recognize when cells are infected with viruses, and then instruct to cell to commit suicide. This drug, dubbed Draco (double straned RNA activated caspase oligomerizer…say that ten times fast) would have no way of evading this drug, without having to evolve a whole new set of genes and modus operandi. This drug can further be tagged with an “address label” so that it only targets certain types of cells, which adds an extra layer of protection.
While there is still a lot of work to be done on these new drugs, only one out of three is currently in animal model testing, there is a LOT of promise in these lines or research and several major breakthroughs could be made in the next few years.