Todd Rider, a biomedical engineer at MIT, has a potential cure for every virus on the planet. Still, he won’t be eradicating Zika any time soon because of what he doesn’t have: money. A lot of arm waving and several crowdfunding campaigns after announcing his discovery, Double-stranded RNA Activated Caspase Oligomerizer, 15 years ago, he still doesn’t have the funds to follow up meaningfully on his successful preliminary tests. Rider currently resides in a spot scientists refer to as the “Valley of Death,” the place between work basic research organizations will fund and pharmaceutical company landslides.
Rider has a particularly sleek Indiegogo campaign, spearheaded by some savvy internet activists, running right now. But it’s not exactly off to the races. The benefit to funders is potentially life-changing, but also uncertain. Support has been enthusiastic but, well, inadequate. This is something Rider is, unfortunately, used to at this point.
Interview Conducted by Inverse below:
Take me back to when you first discovered DRACOs. Did you immediately see their potential?
Because there were so few existing antiviral therapeutics, and those tended to be specific just for individual viruses or even just particular strains of individual viruses, I was motivated to develop new antiviral therapeutics that would be effective against a very broad spectrum of viruses. Rather than trying to invent something from scratch, I decided to borrow from what nature has already invented. Our cells have natural ways of detecting viral double-stranded RNA, and natural ways of triggering suicide in certain cells. I invented DRACO to combine those two natural systems and kill virus-infected cells. Just as the development of antibiotics completely revolutionized the treatment and prevention of bacterial infections in the mid-20th century, I believe that DRACO has the potential to completely revolutionize the treatment and prevention of viral infections in the 21st century.
While it’s easy to acknowledge that the “Valley of Death” is a significant problem in medical research, you might think that a potential cure for all viruses would somehow transcend the valley and generate sufficient interest and funding. Why hasn’t this happened?
Modest amounts of funding from the National Institutes of Health have enabled the previous proof-of-concept experiments in cells and mice, but that funding grant is now over. Major pharmaceutical companies have the resources and expertise to carry new drugs like DRACO through the manufacturing scale-up, large-scale animal trials, and human trials required for FDA approval. However, before committing any of their own money, those companies want to see that DRACOs have already been shown to be effective against major clinically relevant viruses (such as members of the herpesvirus family), not just the proof-of-concept viruses (such as rhinovirus) that were previously funded by NIH. Thus the Valley of Death is the financial and experimental gap between the previously funded NIH proof-of-concept experiments and the threshold for convincing major pharmaceutical companies to advance DRACOs toward human trials.
It seems as though DRACOs aren’t a silver bullet — separate therapies would have to be developed and tested individually, each at great cost. Am I right about this?
In theory, one DRACO design should be effective against a very broad spectrum of viruses, and effective in a wide range of people. Starting from our initial proof-of-concept work, it may take some experimental optimization to find that best DRACO design though, and it has been challenging to find the funding to carry DRACO beyond our very early-stage work.
What do you imagine a DRACO-based treatment would actually look like, if it were developed?
We have demonstrated that the initial version of DRACO can be successfully administered to mice as an injection or via inhalation. My ultimate goal is to develop DRACO in a pill form, but first I have to teach the mice how to swallow pills.
How did you decide to turn to crowdfunding to help support this?
Online activists heard about my DRACO research, offered to raise funding to help support my work, and have been instrumental in running the campaigns. I am very grateful to all of the folks who have helped with or donated to the crowd-funding campaigns.
So far, you raised a modest amount through the two campaigns. Are you surprised or disappointed with the response to date?
I deeply appreciate all of the donations that have been made thus far. If crowdfunding is able to raise as much money as we hope, that could fund the development and testing of DRACOs against clinically relevant viruses in cells. However, even if the crowdfunding campaign does not raise the full amount, whatever amount is raised will be very helpful to buy supplies and equipment as I continue to try to obtain additional research funding from other sources.
Do you believe the goal of curing all viral disease through DRACOs is attainable?
If we can successfully demonstrate and optimize DRACOs against clinically relevant viruses in cells, we believe those results should persuade pharmaceutical companies to carry DRACOs through large-scale animal trials and hopefully into human trials. The timeline depends on funding levels (including how much funding pharmaceutical companies are willing to commit later) and whether any unforeseen scientific difficulties arise in the experiments. However, if everything goes well, we hope that DRACO could enter human trials within a decade or even less.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.