When MIT-trained engineer Todd Rider revealed his revolutionary idea for killing virtually any virus, everyone from fellow scientists to The White House praised him for his results, with some going as far as to call his discovery the most important medical breakthrough since antibiotics. Yet four years later, Rider is struggling to find funds for his research and has to turn to online crowdfunding for something that could save the lives of millions.
The story of Todd Rider’s quest to rid the world of viruses began over 15 years ago, when, while in the shower, he came up with a radical idea in his head – what if there was some way to kill viruses by flipping their biologic suicide switches leaving the patient healthy and infection free? For the next decade, he and his colleagues worked on the concept of Broad-Spectrum Antiviral Therapeutics, which proposed a whole new approach to tackling viruses. Instead of containing and preventing viral infections, their method actually killed virus-infected cells, without harming normal cells.
In early tests, this new weapon dubbed Double-stranded RNA (dsRNA) Activated Caspase Oligomerizer (DRACO), eliminated 15 pathogens, from the common cold to H1N1 influenza to hemorrhagic fevers like the dengue virus. It proved effective across 11 human cell types, including heart, kidneys and liver, and mice infected with lethal doses of influenza virus were cured with DRACO treatments.
In order to make his DRACO molecule effective against viruses in general, and not just a certain type, Todd Rider first focused on the structure of these microorganisms. Ribonucleic Acid (RNA), an integral part of life, is found in healthy cells in single strands, unlike its cousin Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). But he knew that almost all viruses posses a piece of double-stranded RNA, the length of which makes them distinct from the few healthy cells that also have very short double-stranded pieces.
Rider realized that he could create a molecule able to identify infected cells carrying this viral signature and, most importantly, program this molecule to activate their kill switch after they attach to a virus, destroying the infected cells and the virus. “DRACO has the potential to revolutionize the treatment and prevention of viral illnesses, just as antibiotics revolutionized the treatment and prevention of bacterial infections in the mid-twentieth century,” Rider said four years ago.
He was able to create this molecule with funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). DRACOs were first tested on the common cold virus, by infecting human lung cells with a respiratory virus that causes colds and then injected DRACOs into the mix. The infected cells were destroyed, but the healthy cells were left unharmed. The same thing happened when the molecules were tested on the flu virus. In total, Rider and his team tested DRACOs on 15 different viruses.
In some cases, they tried injected DRACOs first and tried to infect the cells with viruses. The molecules displayed a protective effect that lasted up to three weeks. When used as a cure, DRACOs proved effecting in clearing the viruses in human cells and mice, as long as they were administered within three days of the initial infection.
DRACOs wouldn’t work on viruses that don’t produce double-stranded RNA, but the good news was is that most that infect humans do. So the initial results were impressive, to say the least, but soon after Rider’s study was published, garnering great peer reviews, support for his discovery started to falter, for reasons that remain unknown. Before he knew it, his project was stranded in what he describes as the “funding valley of death”. Big Pharma won’t touch this kind of early research until scientists can provide evidence that it will turn into a lucrative product, and Todd Rider has a long way to go to reach that point.
“It’s a barbaric system,” Dr. Ben Barres, a professor of neurobiology at Stanford and the founder of a startup called Annexon Biosciences, told Tech Insider. “By the time any VC [venture capitalist] or pharma will fund you, you have to have made a drug, shown efficacy, and … wrapped it up and tied it in a bow so they are sure they will make money.”
Photo: Todd Rider/MIT
Last year, a director from the National Institute of Health told Tech Insider that they are still interested in his work and are willing to fund it, but they need to hear from him first. However, Todd Rider claimed he had tried applying for funding, only to get rejected repeatedly. “I have now spent nearly 16 years pursuing every avenue to get funding for this work, with only limited success previously and none recently. It can take a month or more of working round the clock to write an NIH proposal, and most are summarily rejected without much comment,” he said.
After proving the DRACOs’ efficacy against over a dozen viruses, the next logical step would be try it against other types, like the herpes virus, which is exactly what Rider plans to do if he can just get the funding. His promising molecules are still a long way from being tested on live humans, and if he can’t get the money to further his research, he may never reach that point.
Last year, left with very few options, Todd Rider gave crowdfunding a try, starting a campaign for $100,000, managing to raise just $60,823 in a month. Refusing to abandon his life’s work, the persistent scientist recently launched his second Indiegogo campaign, on May 3rd, with the same financial goal as the first. With a month to go, the campaign has raised just $16,889 from 117 backers. But that’s just the first set goal, one that would allow him to rent lab space and supplies to continue his research. To actually test DRACOs on herpes virus cells, he would need $1 million, and to test it on multiple herpes virus strains, including CMV and HSV, $2 million. Yeah, this work is pretty expensive.
I’m pretty sure Mr. Rider will not give up on DRACOs even if this second crowdfunding campaign fails, but it must be frustrating seeing the most trivial inventions drawing in insane financial support, while his potentially game-changing molecule struggles in obscurity.
As Rider puts it, the world needs DRACOs to go viral, so let’s hope that coverage like this helps raise awareness about his amazing work. Please share his story, not this one necessarily, but at least his crowdfunding campaign, so we can finally get the virus killer moving again. It could one day save your life, or that of a loved one.