Todd Rider Has a Kill Switch for Viruses

The science savant has a possible cure for the common cold—and every other virus

The July issue of the science journal PLoS One detailed an explosive finding: a drug that creates a kind of viral self-destruct switch. In years to come it could be used to eradicate diseases from HIV to the common cold. “Forget the flu shot,” wrote Men’s Health. “How about a flu cure?”

Even more impressive, the study’s main researcher isn’t a doctor. Todd Rider entered the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1986 at age 17 and left nine years later with four degrees, including a PhD in electrical engineering and computer science. He also minored in relativistic quantum field theory and solid state and optical physics. “Once you start on the path of the dark side, you are hooked,” jokes Rider of his obsession with science.

When he finally graduated in 1995, Rider briefly went to work for a biotech startup but returned to MIT two years later to take the position of staff scientist at the Lincoln Laboratory, which is dedicated to using advanced technology for national security. Rider, now 42 and a senior staff scientist, initially devoted his research to finding new ways to sniff out viruses. By splicing jellyfish genes into white blood cells—nature’s front line against viral invaders—he created a biological sensor that glows in the presence of disease. The technology is faster than chemistry-based methods of disease detection and is now used by the government to test air samples for biological threats. Starting next year, Rockville (Md.)-based Innovative Biosensors plans to sell nasal swabs that use Rider’s technology to spot infectious-disease outbreaks in hospitals.

Rider moved on from detecting viruses to destroying them. He describes in the recent journal article a new drug, still under development, which he has successfully used to destroy 15 viral strains, including dengue fever, a stomach virus, and a polio virus. To create it, Rider combined two proteins commonly found in the human body. One binds to viral double-stranded ribonucleic acid, a type of molecule found in all viruses. The other induces apoptosis, which is essentially programmed cell suicide. The drug acts like a homing missile that seeks out and kills cells infected by a virus. It appears to have few negative consequences and works against all diseases, even as they mutate. “Most viruses kill the host cells anyway. They are like aliens in a movie,” says Rider. He has tested the drug in mice, but it may be as many as 10 years before a commercial version is available for humans. “This is a very clever approach, we are very encouraged by the proof of concept,” says Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, one of the study’s funders.

Rider is a sci-fi aficionado, and he patented a rocket-staging system in high school. The invention earned him the grand prize at the International Science and Engineering Fair, along with a trip to Stockholm and a chance to meet Nobel prizewinners in literature and physics. “This was deemed sufficiently nerdy that I was promptly institutionalized at MIT,” he jokes. While there, and not busy studying for his four degrees, he took time to learn French, German, Chinese, and Japanese. He also picked up several ancient languages, including Sumerian and Mayan, because he wanted to be able to read the inscriptions on museum artifacts.

For his PhD thesis, he proved that a working hot fusion reactor would either consume more energy than it generates or spew as much radiation as existing nuclear power plants—a finding that did not endear him to many physicists and cut off some career options. Biomedicine, in a way, was a backup, but now consumes him. This latest finding, he says, “has the potential to revolutionize the way we treat viral diseases.”

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