Time magazine’s “Healthland” blog featured an entry this morning entitled “MIT Scientists Develop a Drug to Fight Any Viral Infection.” Considering the usual level of exaggeration in science journalism, I was really excited to find out that this is based on some pretty solid research.
Of course, as most science articles do (based on anecdotal evidence, to be fair), this one includes, as its second-to-last line, the caveat that the researchers “hope to license the technology for trials in larger animals [and] someday in humans.” So, you’re not likely to see it on shelves tomorrow. Still, to be fair-if-cynical, something that could be as profitable as this, if it does work out, should see further research soon enough.
A habit I’ve picked up over the past few years (and one I hope I can instil in others) is immediately scrolling down until I find the actual peer-reviewed, published research the story is based on (In this case, free! Available to anyone with internet! This is sometimes a glorious age indeed.)
Now, unlike the last paper I talked about here, this one is difficult to get through without at least a little background in the field, so I wouldn’t necessarily suggest that you do so. Even though viruses aren’t my thing, I’ve had enough basic biology and physiology in the last two years that I was able to muddle through with the help of coffee and quiet.
The treatment revolves around inducing cell-suicide among infected cells, and leaving healthy cells alone. This is really, really cool. There are a lot of ways in which your body fights infection. One of these ways is programmed cell death, or apoptosis (which is a way too silly-sounding word to mean what it does, if you ask me).
Apoptosis is triggered by other cells and chemical pathways that aren’t necessarily relevant to what I’m talking about here–suffice it to say that it is a way to get rid of old cells and destroy infected cells. It happens naturally–your body needs to get rid of cells at the end of their life cycle in an efficient and non-traumatic way. It happens in embryos and growing children; it’s happening in you right now, no matter your state of health (actually, I would assume that some immunological disorders would involve a slowing of the mechanisms that lead to apoptosis, but, again, this is not my area of expertise).
In cells infected by viruses, it is important that apoptosis (or another means of cell destruction) occurs before the virus is allowed to replicate and destroy the cell. Once the multiplied viruses have left the infected cell or cells, they spread to even more cells, and so on.
On the other hand, if apoptosis is induced in the cell before the reproduced virus can exit the cell, then the path of the virus is stopped (or at least slowed). Remember, if you will, your freshman year biology class: viruses replicate by invading cells, using the cells to make copies of themselves, and then destroying the host cells. (As opposed to bacteria, which reproduce on their own.) And, yes, it’s more complicated than that, but that will do for now.
The problem with fighting against viruses is that they mutate (that’s why you have to get a new flu shot every year, for instance). This new research seems to have the potential for broader use–it would seem difficult for viruses to mutate to avoid detection and apoptosis of their host cells.
Did I mention that they’ve named their method “Double-stranded RNA (dsRNA) Activated Caspase Oligomerizer” (DRACO)? Scientists sometimes go out of their way for and/or take liberties with acronyms. I’m looking at you, NASA–because it’s super-reasonable to name a mission “Acceleration, Reconnection, Turbulence and Electrodynamics of the Moon’s Interaction with the Sun” (ARTEMIS).
Not that I have a problem with this phenomenon. Acronyms are cool.
Essentially, what I got out of the paper is that the Time article is quite a decent explanation of the research. Here’s the thing about being skeptical and thorough and scientific: sometimes, everything works out just fine, and you’ve done all your extra research for nothing. Of course, it’s never really for nothing, because the acquisition of knowledge is the ultimate good (I will brook no arguments on that). Most of the time, anyway, the opposite is true, and a little further study is worthwhile.
In conclusion, if we can cure the common cold before we get to Mars, I think that astronomers probably owe biologists a round of drinks