Today’s good news is that a biotech startup, Kimer Med, has been founded to develop the DRACO approach to defeating viral infections. Those of us who have been following developments in antiviral technologies that might be applied to persistent infections relevant to aging, such as cytomegalovirus (CMV) and other herpesviruses, may recall a burst of interest in DRACO some years ago, particularly the research crowdfunding efforts in 2015 and 2016.
DRACO (Double-stranded RNA Activated Caspase Oligomerizer) works by selectively killing cells that exhibit one of the distinctive signs of viral replication. This replication produces long double-stranded RNA, whereas mammalian cells only produce short double-stranded RNA in the normal course of events. It is possible to deliver a form of molecule into the cell that interacts with only long double-stranded RNA and triggers cell death via caspase induced apoptosis as a result, depriving the viral particles of their factory. The fine details of the approach are outlined in the original 2011 paper, and DRACO has been proven to do quite well by a few different research groups in several different animal models of viral infection.
There are two reasons as why this is interesting. Firstly, it can be applied, with little additional work on a per-case basis, to a broad range of virus types, becoming a potentially near-universal antiviral platform. The economics of such a technology look very good in comparison to most other antiviral approaches. Secondly, it has the potential to clear the body of persistent viruses such as CMV. CMV causes great harm to the immune system over a lifetime because it can only be suppressed by present strategies, never fully cleared from the body. The evidence strongly suggests that it is one of the major causes of age-related immunosenescence.
Unfortunately, DRACO went the way of all too many novel research initiatives. It was a struggle to obtain following grants for such a radical departure from the established approaches, the research crowdfunding efforts didn’t go that well (as is usually the case – it is very hard to crowdfund scientific research), the researchers involved moved on, the institutions involved abandoned any effort to maintain and license the intellectual property. All of this happens to many projects in the research community, year after year, regardless of their scientific merits and potential to produce viable, useful therapies.
Sadly, intellectual property is such a linchpin in the standard approach to biotechnology investment, as well as in Big Pharma business models, that technologies in the public domain tend to be left for dead. The view is that no-one can monopolize them, own that whole part of the field, which is seen as necessary in order to justify the enormous resources needed to push a therapy through the present heavy-handed regulatory system. Yet it is nonsense to think that any approach to therapy can in practice be monopolized. Every successful development program quickly results in other organizations putting significant efforts into finding ways to achieve a similar result via the same mechanism that nonetheless bypass existing patents. Still, near all investors and institutions in the commercial space steer clear of public domain science until such time as someone produces clinical success by doing otherwise.
Thankfully, the Kimer Med team are willing to be outliers in this matter. They have picked DRACO as their cause to champion, and intend to raise funds to replicate the work, expand it, and bring this radical new approach to antiviral therapy to the clinic. To the degree that they achieve success, others will follow.