World-first Laurier discovery offers new therapeutic strategy to target viruses and cancer genes

Wilfrid Laurier University virologist and immunologist Stephanie DeWitte-Orr has made a significant discovery with the potential to revolutionize the method by which scientists search for and eliminate genes that cause cancer and viruses.  

This new therapeutic technology is promising for the treatment or prevention of a wide variety of diseases and conditions including cancer, back pain and viruses like COVID-19. 

Long dsRNA, also known as double-stranded ribonucleic acid, is the target of the research project’s attention. When a healthy cell detects that it may have been infected by a virus, it will use dsRNA to help defend the body.  

An infected cell will “put many different sequences in it, and those sequences can match protein sequences, so what happens is that we can control what proteins the cell stops making dependent on what sequences we put in our double stranded RNA,” DeWitte-Orr said.   

“For a lot of these diseases, the cell is making too much of a protein. With this technology, we can make the cell turn off just those proteins from being made,” she said. 

“Whatever sequence we put in our molecule can turn off whatever proteins in the cell which we would want to turn off …Because we have such a long molecule we can put lots of different sequences in it so we can turn off more than one protein at the same time,” DeWitte-Orr said.  

“Most of what we do with it is to activate [an] antiviral response called the Type I interferons (IFN-I), [which] stops viruses – but it does care what is in the sequence of the dsRNA just whether the dsRNA is there.” 

This sparked the debate over whether or not order is important. 

“It turns out that it does, and that we can regulate this sequence in addition to controlling what proteins the cell makes,” DeWitte-Orr said.  

DeWitte-Orr discovered that a molecule also has a sequence, not that it is just dsRNA. “This sequence matters, and we can control this sequence, and control what proteins the cell makes.” 

“This is a platform technology which means this research could be imputed into so many different ways. You could put whatever sequence you want in the dsRNA. So that really opens up its application to pretty much any disease where the cell is making too much of something, this technology could help,” DeWitte-Orr said 

This technology is in its early stages. The investigation into the discovery has not yet begun in its pre-clinical phase. 

This therapy can be given in the form of an inhaler, and has shown to be useful for combating SARS-COV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.  

According to DeWitte-Orr, it could take anywhere from five to fifteen years for the treatment to become commercially available 

She recently applied for funding to conduct preclinical trials of the dsRNA technique on humans. So far, it has only been viable in test tubes. 

Preclinical experiments with SARS-CoV-2 are the next logical step before human testing may begin. If that goes well, she’ll go on to human testing, which might take quite some time. 

As for the future, they are “looking towards other viral diseases working on reducing influenza with this technology,” DeWitte-Orr said.  

In addition, DeWitte-Orr hopes to launch pre-clinical trials evaluating the potential of their product to treat malignant tumors and lower back discomfort within the next year. 

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