Sunday, 14 August 2011

Scientists find cure for every virus and maybe ageing

Scientists find cure for every virus and maybe ageing

According to a New Scientist article, a potential cure has been found for all the viruses they tested. They also now know what causes ageing.

According to [an article in New Scientist](http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn20788-experimental-drug-could-defeat-any-virus.html), Todd Rider and his colleagues at MIT have found a way to wipe out any virus - or at least - any virus they tested - including the common cold, flu and AIDS. This is ground-breaking news. Just as antibiotics are a silver bullet for bacterial infections, it seems like these scientists have found a silver bullet for viruses.

For the reader who is not sure of the different types of diseases, allow me to briefly elaborate. There are four types of infections one can acquire: cancerous, viral, bacterial, and fungal.

Cancer is not, strictly speaking, an infection. Rather, in cancer, what happens is a cell reproduces itself incorrectly when dividing in the process we call “growing”. The DNA is not correctly replicated, and a faulty copy is produced. This faulty copy, lacking any ability to shut down or stop, then produces another faulty copy. This creates a tumour, or ball of cells.

Fungal infections are, to put it a simply as possible, typically skin or membrane infections. Fungi are plant-like organisms; the type we are most familiar with are mushrooms, but ringworm and athlete’s foot are also fungal. They spread by means of spores or microscopic root systems, known as microrhiza. They cause their harm by feeding on the surface of your skin or membranes. Most fungal infections can be cleared out by exposure to drought and topical creams. As such, they are probably the least deadly of the various types of infections one can get, even if they can be very persistent. Not all fungi are harmful, however. Some fungi, for example, excrete penicillin as a waste byproduct, which is lethal to bacteria. Penicillin, as you probably know, was the first antibiotic.

Bacteria, on the other hand, are free-floating single-celled organisms; miniature animals, for want of a simpler way of explaining it. Just as your body is made of billions of cells working in harmony, bacteria are individual cells that work in isolation. Bacterial infections typically cause their harm by consuming nutrients your body needs, and excreting waste products that are poisonous to your body. Fortunately, bacteria are relatively large, and cannot invade your body’s cells. The body’s immune system can typically deal with them by attaching lethal ‘antibodies’ to the bacteria. Antibodies are chemicals that the body’s immune system produces. They are manufactured in response to the initial invasion, and are kept in the blood stream thereafter, ready to respond to a repeated instance of the same bacterium. However, if a bacterium mutates - that is to say, _evolves_, then the body will no longer have immunity to that bacterium, and this is where antibiotics come in handy.

Lastly, we get to viruses. Viruses are much more tricky to deal with. Firstly, they’re generally small enough to penetrate any cell in your body. Moreover, they’re not even really alive. This is something of a debate in biology. In the biological sciences, a being is considered alive if it moves, takes in nutrients, excretes, and reproduces. Viruses do not take in nutrients or excrete, and they reproduce parasitically. In fact, viruses are more or less just DNA in a box. They lack the ‘organelles’ or energy-processing parts that a bacterium has. So what viruses do, is they invade a cell, and then force the cell’s DNA to replicate the viruses’ DNA instead. When the cell has made too many copies of the virus, the cell bursts open, releasing the new viruses, who go on to the next cell, and the process is repeated.

Up until now, doctors have simply immunised us by injecting us with vaccines. Now, we know that there were recently fusses in the popular press about vaccines causing autism and ADHD, but that has since been debunked. A vaccine is simply a serum containing dead or inactive viruses. When the body encounters these proteins, it produces antibodies to attack the proteins. Hence, at a later stage, when the live virus appears, the body can immediately attack and defeat it, because it has been immunised. This is the best we have been able to do thus far, and it has been successful. For example, smallpox and cowpox (where the name ‘vaccine’ comes from - vacca means ‘cow’). These viruses were made extinct because of immunisation. But certain viruses that mutate rapidly have been impossible to stop with vaccines - the common cold, and AIDS, for example.

But this is where we get to the amazing new trick that Todd Rider and his colleagues have discovered. When all viruses replicate, they force the cell to generate additional RNA - the primitive DNA found in mitochondria - cell organelles which process the energy requirements of the cell. Rider’s solution is to inject a compound which they called DRACO - double-stranded RNA-activated caspase oligomeriser. What the compound does is force the host cell to commit suicide before it replicates the viruses, or, while it is in the process. The result is that the host cell bursts open and releases only parts of the virus. This is especially clever, because the body’s immune system can then develop antibodies as well. This means, ultimately, that DRACO can kill any virus - by forcing the mutated host cell to commit suicide.

The trouble, of course, is if you are heavily infected - e.g., if a statistically significant percentage of your cells are infected, then you will lose the function of the organ containing those cells. The idea, then, would be to apply DRACO before the infection got out of control.

Note, however, that this is very different to chemotherapy. In chemotherapy, radioactive isotopes are introduced into the body. They kill cells indiscriminately. The idea is that if you kill enough cells, that since the cancer cells are a minority, they’ll die off, leaving enough healthy cells for you to continue to survive. DRACO, on the other hand, is a precision-targeting system; it only attacks cells which have viruses in them, and causes them to commit suicide.

Now why, you may be wondering, would cells be able to commit suicide? The answer is to prevent DNA mutation, or even worse, cancer. When a cell reproduces itself or splits by means of mitosis, it makes a copy of itself using the DNA it contains in its nucleus. However, each time it copies itself, some of the DNA is damaged or frayed at the ends. Hence, at the end of each strand of DNA, there is a series of junk DNA kept there that is safe to fray off, called a telomere, which means “end part”. Once the telomeres wear out, the cell can no longer safely replicate without risk of becoming cancerous, so it commits suicide. All cells have the ability to commit suicide when they detect that their DNA is faulty. This is what happens, for example, when you get grey hair. The pigmentation cells which produce the hair colour have died off. They committed suicide, because they found that their telomeres - the ends or tips of their DNA - had finally worn out, after repeated replication. Hence, you no longer produce pigment, and thus, your hair goes grey or white.

[Interestingly, if the telomeres could be preserved, we could potentially stave off ageing, since it is cell death that causes ageing.](http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn19780-dna-trick-throws-ageing-into-reverse.html). This is why different species of animals have roughly constant life expectancies; because their DNA is a certain length.

We may just be heading into a future without viruses and without old age. Isn’t science incredible?

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