Ageing, meet Liz Parrish

Elizabeth Parrish, CEO of BioViva Sciences, gives an interesting talk on how her company plans to put an end to ageing: engineered genomics. I seem to understand that there were other talks at the same event, I think at least one held by Bill Andrews and possibly Aubrey de Grey; I will post them if I find them.

Here be DRACOs

This post isn’t about ageing, but about viral infections, which represent a health concern for just about anyone, regardless of their age. While “banal” viruses like the flu one are in general not too much of a hassle to deal with (at least if you’re young and with a healthy immune system), some others are much more pesky: HIV and Ebola, for example, can easily kill you or at least make your life a living hell, and at the moment there are no cures or vaccines available (although the recent outbreak of Ebola in Africa has to my knowledge resulted into the development of some potential vaccines which are currently under trial). The list of killer viruses is longer than that, and it’s not to be forgotten that, if your immune system is compromised, even a flu can turn into something much more serious and kill you.

The way we have dealt with viruses thus far is that of immune stimulation: vaccines are a preventative measure that basically make your immune system aware of the potential threat by means of introducing a killed or weakened form of the virus in your body. In this way, the virus cannot cause any harm (although sometimes you might get some watered-down symptoms), and your immune system can get to know the new pathogen, producing the appropriate immune cells to attack it, which will stick around an be ready to spring into action if needed.

Unfortunately this isn’t the bottom line. We’re not able to produce vaccines for all viruses: for example, HIV has been eluding our attempts for decades, despite the efforts put into the research and the progresses made (mostly in terms of antiretroviral drugs, since at the moment there is no fire-sure HIV vaccine). Viruses have evolution on their side, and they often evolve in such a way that our countermeasures become useless: that’s why, for example, there’s a new flu vaccine every year—the flu virus mutates fast.

There exist antiviral drugs, though, that instead of stimulating the immune system, try to inhibit the development of the virus directly—unlike most antibiotics, drugs targeted to bacteria and meant to kill them—but these drugs are difficult to develop, again because of the fast rate of mutations of viruses and because viruses use the host’s cells in their reproductive process: in a nutshell, it’s hard to interfere with viral replication without also harming the patient’s healthy cells. Additionally, for different viruses you need to design different drugs, so it’s kinda messy.

Some time ago, though, while working for Draper Laboratory, Dr. Todd Rider came up with a brilliant idea that promises to be the viral equivalent of antibiotics: DRACO.

DRACO (or rather DRACOs, since there are many) stands for Double-stranded RNA Activated Caspase Oligomerizer, and its working principle is very simple to explain in layman terms: all viruses use the host’s cells to reproduce. Once they’re done reproducing, the cell is almost certainly going to die, so it’s lost. The vast majority of  viruses, while reproducing, leaves behind a “trail” of double-stranded RNA, which is exactly what DRACO uses to screw the viruses over: DRACO doesn’t try to kill the virus, or to stimulate immune response. DRACO has two main components: one that targets the dsRNA trail, and one that triggers apoptosis, or programmed cell-death (your cells regularly do that, and then are replaced by new ones). You may guess already what happens at this point: DRACO detects infected cells by targeting the dsRNA trail, and when it finds it, it triggers apoptosis, killing the cell (which would be lost to the virus anyway) and preventing the virus from replicating.

DRACO is not just a theory: DRACO has been used in live mice and in human culture cells, and it has cleared them clean of 15 different dsRNA viruses, leaving healthy cells alone and without any adverse effect or sign of toxicity. Maybe it sounds too good to be true, but if you don’t belive me, believe the facts: have a look at Draper Laborary’s announcement a year ago, at the Wikipedia page of DRACO and the scientific paper published in 2011 by dr. Rider and his team. Just Google “DRACO antiviral” and have a look at the results. Or last but not least, check the video of a talk given by dr. Rider himself at—guess where—SRF’s conference SENS6 in 2013 (audio is unfortunately a bit crappy, bear with it).

Now, while it hasn’t yet been tested on live humans, there’s all the reasons to believe that DRACO would be just as effective as it has been in cells and mice, and that it would blow into the hell where they belong all those pesky little suckers obsessed with taking your life—including, but not limited to, HIV.

At this point you might think that, since the drug is so promising, they must be doing more experiments and that there’s funding going into them and that we’re soon to be told about human trials.

Unfortunately I can’t find the sources, but a while back I have read that the research funding coming from NIH (the National Institute for Health in the States) , which was the main (if not only) source of money for DRACO had either been cut or drastically reduced for some obscure reason.  A non-profit organization was thus put up by ordinary citizens, called The DRACO Fund, aiming to raise money to devolve to this particular research. A noble goal: according to dr. Rider, as little as 10 more years of research should be enough to make DRACO a commercially viable drug, putting an end to viral infections. Well, the organization existed since at least 2013, when their facebook page was created, but it didn’t last much longer past 2014: they received a legal order from Draper Laboratory asking them to shut the whole thing down, and saying that they had sufficient funding for research and they would thus no longer accept the donations that The DRACO Fund was collecting. Good if, as they said, they had enough funding to go on, but it’s hard to understand why would they send a cease and desist order to have The DRACO Fund shut down.
The website of The DRACO Fund no longer exists, and their facebook page, still online, is now called Killing sickness and it still supports DRACO, albeit my understanding is that they have been reduced down to a fan page, basically.

That’s not the whole story.
Some time ago I signed a petition (which I urge you to sign yourself, too) to push NIH and the White House to find funds for DRACO research, and recently I received an email update from the same petition. The update said that dr. Rider has left Draper Laboratory, and the news is as recent as May 29th, 2015. The author of the petition, Sabrina Montgomery, has been and still is struggling to find a new facility for dr. Rider to continue DRACO research and to get him the fundings that are needed.

I don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes, but I know that, given enough funding and attention from the general public and authorities, we could put a goddamn tombstone on HIV, Ebola, influenza, and a bunch of other viral diseases as soon as ten years from now. I understand that people prefer to share cat pictures and funny stuff on facebook, but perhaps it’s also the case to spread the word about something more important, too—something that one day might save your life or your dear ones’.

Bottom line: sign the petition, share it, tell your friends, and particularly if you live in the States, push your political representatives to do something about this. Get in touch with Sabrina Montgomery and see if you can help, if it’s possible to put up a larger organization to support DRACO, particularly now that Draper Laboratory doesn’t seem to be involved anymore and thus has no say on where funds come from.
Ten years from now we might be able to laugh in the face of HIV. Think about it.

A video-primer on rejuvenation

For the benefit of the newbies of the rejuvenation world, I spent some time trying to dig out the clearest, shortest and most to-the-point talk by Aubrey de Grey on the topic of what ageing is and how we can cure it. I would really have wanted to find something along the lines of 5 minutes, for the sake of even the most impatient of my readers, but I thought I’d sacrifice shortness to clarity. The video is still reasonably short (20 minutes).
Please, do disregard the word “immortality” that somebody thought smart to put in the title; rejuvenation is not about immortality, it’s about health. However, the i-word attracts a lot more attention (even though most people seems to dread the thought of never dying), so often it ends up attached to SRF’s work, despite bearing no connection whatsoever with it.