Possible progress in medicine

by on August 10, 2011 at 1:16 pm in Medicine | Permalink

…in a development that could transform how viral infections are treated, a team of researchers at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory has designed a drug that can identify cells that have been infected by any type of virus, then kill those cells to terminate the infection.

…In a paper published July 27 in the journal PLoS One, the researchers tested their drug against 15 viruses, and found it was effective against all of them — including rhinoviruses that cause the common cold, H1N1 influenza, a stomach virus, a polio virus, dengue fever and several other types of hemorrhagic fever.

The drug works by targeting a type of RNA produced only in cells that have been infected by viruses. “In theory, it should work against all viruses,” says Todd Rider…

The press release is here and for the pointer I thank Martin Laurence.  Let’s see how long it takes to come on-line…

efp August 10, 2011 at 1:30 pm

Let’s see how long it takes to hit the Nobel Prize prediction markets…

Brandon Robison August 10, 2011 at 1:37 pm

Or this could be the beginning of the zombie apocalypse.

Someone from the other side August 10, 2011 at 1:38 pm

What could possibly go wrong

Micha Elyi August 12, 2011 at 5:21 am

Let’s see… varicella zoster, commonly known as chicken pox, often resides in nerve cells after the active infection has ceased and later can manifest as shingles decades later. Or with this magic cure, dead nerves and paralysis now.

notkevinnealon August 10, 2011 at 1:48 pm

Sounds promising,but what if all of your cells are infected? or 80%? or 50%? or 20%? Could the cure be worse than the disease?

“The good news is that we killed off the virus that was making you sick. The bad news is that we killed you too”.

mk August 10, 2011 at 1:55 pm

“Oh wait, why am I saying this out loud?”

David August 10, 2011 at 2:11 pm

No. If a cell is infected by virus it’s essentially already dead, just going for a while yet to make more virus. It’s certainly not doing whatever it’s supposed to for your body.

About the only exception is Herpes.

Ralph Ziggy August 10, 2011 at 4:25 pm

so in a herpes-infected individual, it would kill their nerve cells? 95% of humans carry some kind of herpes virus

Attorney at Flaw August 10, 2011 at 4:43 pm

The infected must be purged!

bob bobbidy bob bob August 10, 2011 at 5:23 pm

Let’s find someone with herpes and try it out!

Fjandr August 10, 2011 at 6:27 pm

A herpes infection that is not active actually wouldn’t be targeted by this. While latent the virus merely sits in its protein shell inside a cell, not actively producing RNA.

It would probably help with an outbreak, since the virus is limited to the site of wherever the nerve cells it retreats to are situated in the body. It’s unlikely it would be able to cure the disease completely though, since latent viral cysts would remain unaffected.

Adam August 10, 2011 at 2:18 pm

How many viral infections do you know of that occupy 20%, 50%, 80% of all your body’s cells?

Wilson August 10, 2011 at 2:34 pm

I believe its called the Andromeda strain, sir.

Slocum August 10, 2011 at 2:49 pm

What about reports that a non-trivial fraction of human DNA consists of remnants of viruses? For example:


In that sense, 100% of human cells contain viral infections.

Cliff August 10, 2011 at 2:51 pm

Not in the relevant sense that they are producing long double-stranded RNA segments.

Martin Brock August 10, 2011 at 6:58 pm

Why is a viral infection necessarily virulent? If viral infections have beneficial effects, would we even know it? If the drug attacks all viral infections indiscriminately, do we have any idea what its effects are?

Thad August 10, 2011 at 6:01 pm

If memory serves, viruses typically hijack and destroy host cells to reproduce themselves. It sounds like this treatment works by destroying the cell before replication occurs. Either way, the cell is dead, so the infected individual is no worse off.

Kirk Augustin August 12, 2011 at 9:25 pm

No, infected cells are NOT typically destroyed by a virus. It is not in the interests of the virus to do that. Nature selects for viruses that merely splice themselves into genes, without doing any other damage at all. The really destructive viruses, like Ebola, work against themselves, and prevent themselves from being very successful. Not only are the most common viruses fairly harmless, but if not for viral gene splicing mutations, evolution would only have chemical and radiation mutations to work with. It would probably be the end of evolution as we know it.

scarshapedstar August 13, 2011 at 1:28 pm

“if not for viral gene splicing mutations, evolution would only have chemical and radiation mutations to work with”

Well… that and crossing-over during meiosis, which can result in duplications, insertions, deletions, inversions, and of course polyploidy…

Abe August 10, 2011 at 1:53 pm

Shouldn’t this post be titled: “There is no great stagnation”

I guess it’s only one datapoint… But even Tyler would have to concede that it would be quite a datapoint.

Tyler Cowen August 10, 2011 at 2:12 pm

Still only a press release but yes, absolutely, if and when realized this would be a big deal.

Abe August 10, 2011 at 3:07 pm

I’ve come to think about innovation like cash flow to a corporation. Over the long-run, it seems to be reliable. In the short-run, however, its impossible for any company to perfectly match the exact timing of income as the liabilities accrue. Sometimes you go awhile without getting paid – perhaps living off the revolving line of credit. Taking on the debt can seem agonizing and you feel stagnated – sort of an apt analogy for today’s macro growth scenario. Then, one day, you get a giant lump sum receivable that erases your prior worries sets you up for future growth.

This is the kind of discovery that, if fulfilled, would feel like that giant-lump sum receivable scenario.

Sid the sidious August 11, 2011 at 7:14 am

An entire subcategory should be dedicated to Genetic engineering alone

JR August 10, 2011 at 1:56 pm


Agreed. If this worked for even half of all viruses the stagnation is over.

AndrewL August 10, 2011 at 2:05 pm

28 days later… Will Smith is the sole surviving (sane) man on the island of Manhattan toiling away in a secret lab in Greenwich village to find the cure….

MichaelM August 10, 2011 at 8:23 pm

You got your movies mixed up there. Will Smith was in I Am Legend. And the movie was completely different from the book.

Edward Pierce August 10, 2011 at 10:15 pm

I’m pretty sure you’re thinking of Outbreak. The one with Dustin Hoffman and Martin Lawrence.

Alex August 10, 2011 at 10:52 pm

I think he’s mixing “28 Days Later” and “I Am Legend” together, purposefully.

AndrewL August 11, 2011 at 10:02 am

I don’t know if you did this intentionally (it’s Dustin Hoffman and Cuba Gooding Jr.) because I purposely mixed two movies… but it made me laugh :) Also I love the movie Outbreak, one of the best helicopter chase scenes in a movie ever.

Edward Pierce August 11, 2011 at 12:04 pm

No, I don’t think that’s it, AndrewL. I think you’re confusing actors. Cuba Gooding Jr. plays Morpheus in that movie where robots use humans for electricity, Aliens.

cranky critter August 10, 2011 at 2:09 pm

Who’s keeping count of how many ideas that turn out be wrong start with “in theory…?” Just sayin’.

curmudgeon August 10, 2011 at 8:34 pm

“Cranky Critter”? Sounds like a borderline curmudgeon to me. Take that last step and become a full blown curmudgeon. At least there’s no drugs to cure one of being a curmudgeon.

Neal August 10, 2011 at 2:16 pm

The real “how long” question is …

… how long until new virus strands evolve that no longer use that RNA marker?

Cliff August 10, 2011 at 2:53 pm

A long, long time. It’s not an “RNA marker”, it’s double-stranded RNA period.

Bernard Yomtov August 10, 2011 at 3:18 pm

This work is funded by a grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the New England Regional Center of Excellence for Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases, with previous funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Defense Threat Reduction Agency, and Director of Defense Research & Engineering (now the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering).

There’s what’s wrong with the country in a nutshell. We know, from various science fiction stories, that this can’t possibly work, and will likely have disastrous results. Yet the taxpayers still fund it. Any wonder there are calls to sharply reduce discretionary spending?

Rahul August 10, 2011 at 3:21 pm

Ok, how are you so sure this won’t work? Reasons?

Gabe August 10, 2011 at 4:24 pm

Because all of our science fiction says so. :-P

Fiction is Truth!

cthorm August 10, 2011 at 5:47 pm

The only image that comes to mind is the bloody visage of Reavers from Firefly/Serenity.

Yahoo Serious August 10, 2011 at 4:30 pm

So even though a man made virus has yet to be created for good that kills us because you saw a movie about it we must halt science. Considering all these movies are based off books/ideas and have yet to come true we should stop research 100%

Bernard Yomtov August 10, 2011 at 4:38 pm

Rahul and Yahoo Serious,

Excuse me, can I interest either of you in a shiny new, version 5.3, sarcasm detector? Yours’ seem to have quit working.

J August 10, 2011 at 7:52 pm

It has to be version 6.1 though, otherwise it is unable to detect such piss poor sarcasm reliably.

Sanjay August 10, 2011 at 4:15 pm

Reading it now, but I have to admit it sets off my alarm bells that they published this thing in _PLoS ONE_ — where the bar to publication is nonexistent — when if you had something _resembling_ a “broad spectrum antiviral” you should have been able to name your journal. Still, outliers happen.

ezra abrams August 10, 2011 at 4:51 pm

why are you economists and tech types (slashdot crosspost) always so credulous about biomedical research ?
For a moment, just take the stupid approach to the data: something like 0.1% of early stage research (like the PLOS one paper ) become drugs – maybe more like 0.01%
so the likelyhood of any random paper turning into a drug (which takes 5+years) is awfully low.
I could talk a lot about the technical issues , but I’m more interested in the sociology – as a scientist, I see again and again this sort of naive optimism regarding research.
Its early stuff; comback in 5 years
(mammalian cells growing in a petri dish are NOT an organism – many drugs fail because it turns out they cause cardiac arrythmia, which is hard to measure in a test tube)
Mice are not humans – if there was a 1% fatality rate in mice, you would never see it, but you would sure as hell see it in humans…..
(viruses vary a lot in the real world – maybe the virus strains they used in the lab are not representative of what you see in the “wild”)

Jordan August 10, 2011 at 6:05 pm

I think you’re being a bit obtuse… it can be simplified: this study was testing a new *action* to take in dealing with X. That is, and action you can take once you are at the cells. The method to deliver this action to the places in the body it is needed were NOT studied, and this is where many drugs fail: the method of action might be sound if it could be delivered, but either it cannot be, or the delivery system causes other problems that outweigh the action we’re taking.

Bill August 10, 2011 at 7:35 pm

Because economists are the closest relatives to mice, other than lawyers, and any drugs that work on mice could work on them?

stone cold steve austin August 10, 2011 at 4:56 pm


stone cold steve austin August 10, 2011 at 4:56 pm

I do not like DIRECT LINKING. I like indirect linking to MY FAVORITE SITES.

Jim G August 10, 2011 at 5:08 pm

Clorox would successfully kill all infected cells. The trick is to *not* kill most *non-infected* cells. Let’s see if they can demonstrate that.

Andy I August 10, 2011 at 5:35 pm

I think they did this on Star Trek every other week or so. The nice thing plus about it is that the person completely reverted from the hideous alien back to the person the were before the infection.

The Anti-Gnostic August 10, 2011 at 5:35 pm

Why isn’t this a “development that could transform” cancer treatment? Why did they go all in for viruses, most of which are handled by the immune systems of healthy individuals? For that matter, why wouldn’t bacterial infections take priority for this sort of research/treatment?

Those are my lay questions which others may be able to answer.

maej August 10, 2011 at 6:35 pm

From reading the abstract (not the paper) it appears they target double stranded RNA which is pretty unique to viruses (in fact, unique to viruses of a certain type). This means their treatment can’t be used to treat cancerous cells or bacterial infections because the “tag” which proclaims that the cell is not normal is missing in these cases. Currently we have very few treatments that can effectively target viruses. Our immune systems do a pretty good job fighting off viral infection, but then they work quite well against cancer and bacterial infections as well. However, when things go wrong, there simply aren’t many good antiviral therapies. Indeed, some won’t be given unless you are basically dying because they are so toxic.

Micha Elyi August 12, 2011 at 5:26 am

Nobody has figured out a way to weaponize cancer yet – that we know of, anyway.

paozug August 10, 2011 at 5:45 pm

Is this really a big lump sum? I thought the really expensive medical things were cancer and just being old. This doesn’t really help either of those. Would this cure aids? If it would, this would make all the difference for places like Africa and parts of Asia. However, I can’t say that my middle class American life would be dramatically improved by not getting colds.

Barnley B August 10, 2011 at 6:44 pm

Some viruses do cause cancer like Hepatitis B and HPV. And it’s the elderly that succumb to viruses like the influenza virus and rhinovirus, that the young and healthy can fight off, and end up being hospitalised or worse. In any event the promise is that the something like the medical revolution that occurred with development of antibiotics will occur with this antiviral drug.

Finch August 10, 2011 at 6:45 pm

I’d pay $10k a year to not get colds.

Orange14 August 10, 2011 at 6:34 pm

LOL! I just finished reading the paper and I’ve read probably a hundred or more just like it that made tremendous claims based on cell culture studies (and even mice studies) and when they were tested in humans, they either did not work or had unusual toxicities that were not revealed in the animal models. You count the number of failed biotech companies in the 100s who had similar technologies but couldn’t prove the concept in humans. The problem here is that this drug will need to be infused since it is a protein and it’s not clear to me whether it would be recognized by the body as a foreign protein, triggering an immune response thus negating the value of the drug. You will also have the issue of how to stop viral replication since this mode of action is to only kill infected cells. There will be some residual viral particles released that can cause further cell infection (though this can be mathematically modeled).

Of course it’s always exciting to see a future cure for Ebola, a virus that has never been observed in nature outside of Africa (since it requires a primate host for replication). Good to scare the public in demanding a cure for something that doesn’t even threaten us. Good luck to the researchers in finding a corporate partner to develop this. Unless they can find some very big pockets, this will quickly die a natural (not viral infected) death.

MSB August 10, 2011 at 11:42 pm

I was going to post the same thing. It would also be more impressive if our immune systems didn’t already have much more elegant mechanisms for removing viral-infected cells.

Tom Perkins August 11, 2011 at 9:08 pm

Do tell…

Rahul August 11, 2011 at 2:07 am

It isn’t true that Ebola risks are Africa specific:

From Wikipedia:

Reston ebolavirus (REBOV)
Discovered during an outbreak of simian hemorrhagic fever virus (SHFV) in crab-eating macaques from Hazleton Laboratories (now Covance) in 1989. Since the initial outbreak in Reston, Virginia, it has since been found in non-human primates in Pennsylvania, Texas and Sienna, Italy.

I can see a definite interest from the CDC or bioterrorism types,.

Brian Bergfeld August 10, 2011 at 7:47 pm

Would this concept be effective against HIV?

Skepticus August 11, 2011 at 3:47 pm

Against the *idea* of HIV, maybe …

“I did computer searches. Neither Montagnier, Gallo, nor anyone else had published papers describing experiments which led to the conclusion that H.I.V. probably caused AIDS.” (Kary Mullis, Nobel-winning inventor of PCR)

curmudgeon August 10, 2011 at 8:30 pm

Sounds as if this might be a likely candidate to reduce the surplus population. If most of your cells are expressing the RNA is whatever small quantities and the “medicine” kills them and you along the way then we’ve got a win/win; fewer viruses and fewer individuals consuming our non-renewable resources and competing for or limited renewable resources. Just the sort of thing that Agenda 21 would promote.

Jolyon Smith August 10, 2011 at 9:12 pm


1) You can’t (as far as I know) “catch” cancer. You *get* cancer, or you don’t, but – in the main – there will not be a pandemic outbreak of cancer (developing cancer from environmental factors such as putting smoke in your lungs isn’t “catching” cancer in the same way that you can catch a cold, the flu or HIV etc by intimate – or not so intimate – interaction with someone already infected)..

2) Bacteria in the main are already treatable with antibiotics.

Armed with those basic facts, the reason why researchers might be focusing on virus’s should be obvious:

There is currently – in the main – no treatment for viral infection and if left untreated a viral outbreak can spread and depending on the particular virus could have potentially catastrophic consequences.

Orange14 August 10, 2011 at 9:50 pm

“There is currently – in the main – no treatment for viral infection and if left untreated a viral outbreak can spread and depending on the particular virus could have potentially catastrophic consequences.”

Not true there are a number of vaccines targeted against viruses (influenza, measles, mumps, polio, HPV, Hepatitis) and a variety of anti-virals that also treat influenza, Hepatitis, HIV, and some herpes strains.

The Anti-Gnostic August 11, 2011 at 1:50 pm

My question was answered above: the unique RNA tag is only peculiar to viruses.

I disagree about viruses being a bigger threat. For most of us they only mean a couple of days in bed, and the great virus bogey-man, HIV, is easily avoided by 95% of the population. I think bacterial infections will be a much bigger problem as antibiotic-resistant strains continue to multiply.

danielpauldavis August 10, 2011 at 9:25 pm

I merely drink vinegar.

Martin Laurence August 10, 2011 at 9:37 pm

This type of drug screams blockbuster. It is used only for a short period, so identifying side-effects is both cheap and straight forward. It may very well save people from dying of Ebola, in which case even major side effects (eg. 10% chance of dying due to the treatment) are outweighed by your other choice: certain death. These two items mean that FDA approval is very likely. Then refinements to the drug, more comprehensive trials, and off label use have the potential of addressing a very wide range of infections. And above all, this is not a vaccine, so you can expect recurring sales and loyal customers. It also has great commercial potential in the protection of livestock (if it can be manufactured cheaply enough). Finally, when the next 1918 like flu epidemic will hit and your odds of dying (once infected) are 25%, you will be very happy to suffer its major side effects, though once a century epidemics are hard to exploit commercially.

Orange14 August 10, 2011 at 9:56 pm

Identifying the side effects is neither cheap nor straight forward. The swine flu vaccine debacle in 1977 killed and injured a significant number of people who received it despite the fact that it was deemed “safe” and this was a one shot vaccine. Rare side effects only show up when there is a large cohort of people who receive the drug/vaccine. Say you have a 1/10,000 rare event. To statistically determine whether this is attributable to the drug/vaccine you need a minimum of 30,000 patients in the trial. This is the reason that vaccine clinical trials are so large. You also cannot do a simple clinical trial on Ebola. You would have to wait until there was an epizootic outbreak in equatorial Africa and get the drug to the patients ASAP to see if it works. Also as I noted in my previous post, if this drug is immunogenic you won’t have any repeat customers since it won’t work the second time around.

Martin Laurence August 10, 2011 at 10:04 pm

Ebola outbreaks are actually pretty frequent: http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/dvrd/spb/mnpages/dispages/ebola/ebolatable.htm . Very cheap trial if you can get there in time.

Rahul August 11, 2011 at 2:10 am

Rare side effects only show up when there is a large cohort of people who receive the drug/vaccine.

Which makes rare side effects pretty irrelevant if the target virus is something virulent enough. If the disease I’m targeting has a 1/1000 chance of fatality I don’t care about a rarer side effect.

Orange14 August 11, 2011 at 7:07 am

Other than some really exotic viruses such as Ebola, there is nothing out there that has this fatal virulence. Even SARS was extremely limited in terms of its outbreak and was entirely preventable by educating the populace not to eat the palm civet (the reservoir of the virus) and I don’t think there has been a documented SARS case since the outbreak. Worst case influenza outbreak fatalities are usually caused by the secondary infections and you are better off getting the yearly prophylactic flu vaccine.

Martin Laurence August 10, 2011 at 10:35 pm

This is the bio of the main researcher behind the paper: http://www.ll.mit.edu/60thAnniversary/rider.html

Orange14 August 11, 2011 at 6:56 am

One case in 2011 is not terribly encouraging in terms of doing a clinical trial (though it is encouraging for people living in the area). So I will need to have enough of an investigational drug which is a fragile biological of unknown stability sitting in the refrigerator waiting for the Ebola outbreak and then rushing it over to treat a virus whose progression to fatality is extremely rapid. I don’t think this is a recipe for success.

John August 11, 2011 at 7:00 am

So it looks like the research if by military, for military. No for export.

David August 11, 2011 at 4:21 am

Tests in cell culture and in mice almost NEVER lead directly to safe and effective drugs in humans. The success rate is something like 1:10,000. This sounds like an intriguing approach, but it could be decades before there are any useful drugs on the market.

Orange14 August 11, 2011 at 7:00 am

Success rate is probably much less than that. I remember about 30 years ago publications were appearing about linking cellular toxins such as ricin and diphtheria to monoclonal antibodies as the next magic bullet. On paper this looked great; take a cytotoxic molecule, strip it of the general protein subunit that allowed it to get into almost any cell and replace that with a monoclonal that would selectively target cancer cells. Worked great in mice and never worked in humans. I recall at least 3-4 biotech companies that featured this technology as a platform tool to revolutionize cancer treatment. Boston University invested a fair amount of endowment money in Seragen, a company spun off of BU research. They never recouped their investment and the President of the University, John Silber, was heavily criticized.

An Onyx Mousse August 11, 2011 at 4:28 pm

Actually, the technique you described is still in development and there are some promising results in Phase II and III right now at several companies. Revolutionary techniques rarely work at the first crack, but often we get there eventually… Look at alpha – v- beta -3 inhibitors. There were MANY failed drug candidates when the initial research came out of Harvard on angiogenesis in tumors, but now we have several very real and effective cancer treatments. Also look at tnf-alpha inhibitors (Enbrel and Humira, etc.) For each succesful drug, there were twenty that weren’t, but the industry got it figured out (or lucked into a useful drug) eventually.

So for this virus business, give it 10-20 years before we get marketable, safe treatments, but the target looks solid enough that we will get there eventually.

Joe August 11, 2011 at 12:52 pm

In for the drug killing off the wrong cells and we have a 28 days later scenario

Mark August 11, 2011 at 2:30 pm

Bottom line is; try it on monkeys first.

Blue Falcon August 11, 2011 at 5:35 pm

“Bottom line is; try it on monkeys first.”

You haven’t seen the latest Planet of the Apes movie have you?

Charlie August 11, 2011 at 5:54 pm

Vaccines do not kill viruses that you have already caught. They only prevent you from getting the virus. This development will kill the virus when you are infected with a virus. If you did not get vaccinated with the polio vaccine, as you should have been. This method could kill the virus, hopefully before too much damage is done. If medical science does develop to the point where we all live to be 150 years old and healthy, just think of all the crazy scenarios that could occur. Can our planet survive with 40 billion people living on it?

Will August 11, 2011 at 7:58 pm

Drugs don’t create epidemics.

Kirk Augustin August 12, 2011 at 9:35 pm

Actually, they do.
There is competition between different phages, so often if you wipe one out that was nearly harmless, you can cause a far more deadly one to become epidemic. That essentially is what we are doing with excessive use of antibiotics, that creates resistant strains.

Nathan Kaiser August 12, 2011 at 1:05 am

If the process of identifying infected cells is those with a different MHC molecule or expressing differentiated genome or proteins. If that is the case, would this process cause an issue for women who are pregnant?

Craig August 12, 2011 at 9:31 am

And at the same time, another batch of boffins are hand-rolling a virus that reprograms our own white blood cells into cancer-killing vigilantes: http://slatest.slate.com/posts/2011/08/11/university_of_pennsylvania_cancer_breakthrough_researchers_tout_.html

It’s not long ago we had a crop of analysis pieces lamenting all the work we’d put into this gene-sequencing stuff, for very little return. Like every technological revolution, genetic therapy must pass through enthusiasm and disillusionment before it finally transforms our lives, overnight.

Kirk Augustin August 12, 2011 at 9:31 pm

Sorry, this is a terrible idea. Nearly every cell has some sort of virus presence.
Viruses are everywhere, and mostly harmless.
They may even be essential.
That would be like getting rid of insects, and then finding our we are all going to starve to death because without insects, there would be no pollination.

Sue August 13, 2011 at 7:30 pm

OMG! You’re right! How could we not have thought of that?!

Alexandron Janoulis August 14, 2011 at 6:54 pm

If true, this will never make it to the market. Too much money is being made treating diseases.
I believe the last cure for anything was the polio vaccine back in the early 1950s. Cures are bad not only for the medical/drug business but for the purported necessity of government controlled health.

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