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Viruses might soon meet their kryptonite: an experimental drug that can, in theory, obliterate cells infected by any type of virus without harming healthy neighbours.
For 50 years, we have been fighting viruses in two ways: drugs for existing infections and vaccines to prevent infection in the first place. However, most drugs or vaccines are specific to one virus, viral strain or family of related viruses. When a virus mutates – as they so often do – researchers must retool our medicines.
So Rider and his colleagues glued PKR to apoptotic protease activating factor 1 (APAF-1), a protein that triggers cell suicide by unleashing a team of destructive enzymes. Healthy cells normally reserve APAF-1 for extreme situations – to trigger self-destruction in a cancerous cell, for instance – but as part of the new antiviral drug, APAF-1 is activated as soon as PKR identifies and binds to lengthy molecules of double-stranded RNA in an infected cell.
The drug "catches the virus with its pants down", by destroying the cell before new viruses have been assembled inside it, explains Rider. Even if fragmented virus molecules escape the obliterated cell, they will be missing the protein coat that helps them to travel between cells, and so will not infect surrounding healthy tissue. Rider calls his drug double-stranded RNA (dsRNA)-activated caspase oligomeriser (DRACO).
A vaccine is a biological preparation that improves immunity to a particular disease. A vaccine typically contains an agent that resembles a disease-causing microorganism, and is often made from weakened or killed forms of the microbe or its toxins. The agent stimulates the body's immune system to recognize the agent as foreign, destroy it, and "remember" it, so that the immune system can more easily recognize and destroy any of these microorganisms that it later encounters.