by Fintan Dunne
14 April 2023
Rick Kiessig is the CEO, co-founder, and chief science officer at Kimer Med in Nelson, New Zealand; a biotech startup with a revolutionary antiviral called VTose, which is delivering on the promise of a world without viral diseases.
VTose® is designed to kill most viral infections, with a punch as potent as penicillin's power against germs. That would make it the greatest advance in medicine since antibiotics.
The breakthrough antiviral is derived from a new class of compounds, with patented and proven, broad-spectrum action against such diverse viruses as the common cold, influenza, herpes, COVID-19, animal viruses, and even Ebola and dengue fever.
It's based on research a decade ago, which confirmed the discovery of a new domain of drugs that supercharge our natural cellular viral defenses.
The invention by pioneering researcher, Dr Todd Rider, was acclaimed in 2012 by major media. The antiviral compound he devised is called DRACO [Double-stranded RNA Activated Caspase Oligomerizer].
It's remarkably effective. For example, DRACO completely cured mice infected with lethal doses of influenza.
Dr. Rider tested DRACO against many viruses and got the same impressive results. He had uncovered a critical vulnerability found in almost all viruses. Truly, a magic pill: a single drug class which kills the common cold, as potently as it eliminates Ebola.
It gets better. DRACO works in a way which should prevent viruses from developing resistance to it's effect. Even penicillin cannot do that against bacteria.
But after the confetti had cleared the air, and despite the potential of his groundbreaking innovation, Dr. Rider's seed funding campaign fell surprisingly short, and the project languished.
The years ticked by. Viral pathogens surged unchecked.
Until a biochemist, and Silicon Valley software expert, called Rick Keissig turned from steering NASA rockets to planet Mars, to steering this breakthrough from concept into reality.
As he saw Covid-19 going global, he became determined to advance Dr. Rider's discovery. He delved deep into the published DRACO research and patents, intent on crafting a focussed business model to make the concept financially viable.
The California expat now resides in Nelson, NZ where, in 2020, he co-founded Kimer Med with biomedical engineer and Kimer Med's current CTO, Phil Oliver. The same year, they secured funding of NZ$4.2 million in seed capital, and late in 2022, they got further backing from New Zealand's innovation agency.
The firm has secured an exclusive license from Massachusetts Institute of Technology on the key DRACO patent from Dr. Rider's discoveries. They are developing a range of proprietary, DRACO-based derivatives called VTose®.
VTose disables viral infection by halting viral replication inside cells which the virus has penetrated and hijacked. These hijacked cells eventually burst open, spewing out newly-minted virus to spread further around the body.
The key insight by DRACO inventor, Dr Todd Rider, was the structure of a single molecule which brought together three specific natural cellular processes, and combined them into a potent weapon against almost all viruses. A weapon which would seek out and destroy viral replication using three components:
Key - Tag cell entry is a technique that uses small proteins called cell-penetrating peptides (CPPs) to act like keys to unlock specific tissue targets, such a lung tissue, and let the VTose inside to scout for viral replication.
Head - Once inside a cell, VTose works by recognizing and binding to extra long strands of double-stranded RNA (dsRNA), which are a unique characteristic of viral infections. When it binds to dsRNA, the molecule changes in shape, which activates the protein domain in its tail.
Tail - When two or more VTose molecules bind to viral dsRNA, their protein domains bind to procaspases, which then fuse to each other, triggering the breakdown of the entire cell.
This ability to seek and destroy virus factories, kills off most viral infections. Furthermore, VTose can locate and eliminate dormant infections. That makes it a potential cure -not just a treatment.
Multiple labs have confirmed the devastating impact of the therapy on cellular viral factories. This innovative approach kills off virtually the entire spectrum of human and animal viruses.
It's a blow from which viruses may never recover.
They have evolved ways of hiding their dsRNA and preventing cell death. VTose bypasses such defences, by using early detection to trigger immediate cell death. Leaving the viruses, little to no room for evolutionary maneuver.
By contract, existing antiviral treatments are so specific that resistant strains of virus can easily arise. Prevention by vaccination also requires separate vaccines for each virus, and often annual updates for resistant virus strains.
VTose is a 'one-for-all' solution. One technology -widely applicable.
And it's a 'once-and-done' solution. One version -no annual update.
That's two market-disrupting, cost and effectiveness game changers, which could sideline vaccine prevention, and elevate VTose to become the new standard of care for individual and mass viral infection and outbreaks.
VTose therapies also have potential to extend human functional lifespan, by emiminating viruses such as cytomegalovirus, and others which are associated with cognitive and immune function decline with aging.
Kimer Med's immediate research and development goals are to optimize VTose to target specific viruses, and to refine the CPP 'keys' for various tissue types.
Animal viral diseases are an attractive early target market, with less regulatory barriers and a pressing need, as epidemics of bird flu and swine flu already threaten the human food supply.
Dr. Todd Rider's original DRACO inspiration came to him in the shower in 2002. It took him a decade to prove to the world that his invention was real. It's taken another decade for the baton to pass to a new dream builder.
In his career, Rick Kiessig authored software which guided several extra-planetary NASA craft, including three missions to Mars. None of Rick's rockets missed the target.
Now, his Kimer Med, antiviral ‘rocket’ is fuelled, manned and inching towards a Series A, investment funding launchpad, later in 2023.
The decades-long dream, has at last become real.
Finally, a kryptonite to vanquish viruses is within our grasp.
It's time to grip it tight.
Spread the word.
Fintan Dunne: Rick perhaps you'd introduce yourself, your firm and your mission?
Rick Kiessig: Sure. My name is Rick Kiessig. I'm CEO, co-founder and chief science officer here at Kimed Med, in Nelson New Zealand. We are in the business of imagining a world without viral disease; we are actively working towards that end and asking for your help.
Fintan: Well, it's a bold claim you're making, Rick, which is not pulled out of thin air. It's based on over a decade of research. What range of viruses might this new technique be able to tackle?
Rick: The original research showed efficacy against 15 different viruses, including a trial in mice. Our initial focus at the moment is on RNA viruses such as coronavirus, dengue and a range of other neglected diseases. RNA viruses mostly, but there's reason to believe that the efficacy could be quite broad, both RNA and DNA viruses.
Q: That decade of research tested across a huge spectrum, so is there the potential that this is very broadly applicable; a modern breakthrough against viruses, which is the equivalent of the penicillin and antibiotic breakthroughs against bacteria?
Rick: Yeah, that's right. We're looking at a broad spectrum, a truly broad spectrum antiviral, which is one of the unique aspects of what we're doing. Another interesting and unique aspect is that our approach, we believe, will actually be curative as opposed to most antivirals, which are really just very static. They keep the virus from replicating, but they don't actually cure the disease.
Q: Well, this is where we get into the exciting part, because what you are developing is like a scorpion. It's got a key that gets it into certain types of tissue. Then it's got a head that seeks stuff out, and a sting in its tail.
Can you outline what these are; the key it has, the head that seeks and the sting in it's tail?
Rick: The ‘key’ is what we call a CPP or cellular penetrating peptide. So this is basically a short sequence of amino acids. You can think of it kind of like insulin is a peptide, so it's a short thing. And what this does is it enables the larger protein to enter cells. Most cells actively prevent proteins from getting inside, so we need some trick to help us fix that problem, and that's the CPP.
The next piece is what you are calling the ‘head’, which is another segment of the protein that targets pieces [of dsRNA] that are generated during viral replication. So in our case, we're looking at long segments of double stranded RNA, which is just not present in normal healthy cells.
So we target this virally generated, double stranded RNA and our compound latches onto that.
And that becomes a trigger then for the third piece of our compound, which activates apoptosis in the cells. Apoptosis is like a controlled cell death. It happens all the time. The body does it on a normal basis every day for many cells in the body, and it's part of what the immune system does naturally to help fight against viruses.
Q: Well, what you're describing there, much of that is natural processes. Your molecule latches on to the RNA, it alters its shape, and up comes the procaspase tail. And when two scorpion tails touch and fuse, that's the trigger for the entire cell to die.
Rick: Yes. Another important aspect of the head and stinger that you've alluded to is that they are actually pieces of proteins that exist in every cell in the human body. So these aren't like massively foreign, brand new things that we're introducing. They're really just part of every cell and we're just breaking them apart and combining them in a new way, and in such a way that actually we can bypass some of the viral defenses.
Most viruses have a natural set of defenses that they've evolved over the eons against the way that cells try to protect themselves. Things like preventing apoptosis or caspase cascade as we call it.
Q: Well, we talked about the decade of research and pay due respect to that research initiated by Dr. Todd Rider and with the support of many others. So in what way is your VTose system, which Kimer Med is developing, different, or a development of that original research?
Rick: Dr. Rider’s research was of course foundational and inspirational to the work that we're doing, and it was definitely our starting point. But his work also left out a lot of details. We licensed that technology from MIT, which is where he used to work, and where he did this development. And so what we've done is we've taken that as a starting point and we've evolved it, improved it, proved that it works, and we're now in the process of making additional incremental improvements, to make it even better.
Q: It's a technology which you are going to have to test and customize for specific therapies for specific viral diseases. Is that right?
Rick: Yes we certainly do have to test for each virus. Because viruses, as I say, have different defense mechanisms and so we have to be sure that we're clear of those, and potentially develop workarounds for them. Tissue types can vary and how the compound responds to different tissue types. Different cell types are another variable. Toxicity is also an issue that we need to monitor and manage.
So there's a fair bit of testing that we need to do, both in vitro and the laboratory in cells, and then eventually in animals, and then in people.
Our goal here is also to develop a veterinary drug, actually, using the same compound again, because of its broad spectrum nature that we believe it's applicable to a number of important veterinary viruses.
Q: Will viruses be able to evolve around this or is this a killer blow which will set viruses back in the way that antibiotics and penicillin set bacteria back?
Rick: We have good reason to be very optimistic, because the way that viruses defend themselves requires the whole chain of molecular events to be in sequence.
And so the fact that we've broken these proteins up, and that we're changing the order of things a bit, is very difficult for viruses to detect and evolve. Given enough time, who knows, but at the moment our belief is that our compound bypasses a number of these viral defenses in such a way that it would be fairly difficult for the single, simple types of mutations that generally happen with RNA viruses, for example to detect and find a way around.
Q: Furthermore your ‘scorpion sting’ in the tail is an end stage in the cell death, so there's not much a virus can do to interfere with it?
Rick: That's right. So one of the keys of viral evolution is that they need to be able to survive the event in order to evolve. So obviously if we prevent that that's another layer of protection. Certainly.
Q: We have many viruses, retroviruses, all sorts of viruses in our bodies. Even our bacteria in our gut have viruses. So, particularly with long-term treatment with this class of drugs, is there a potential that we might have unwanted clinical effects, or signaling interference effects that we haven't anticipated? What's the evidence for that so far?
Rick: Our guts have bacteria, lots of bacteria and therefore bacteria also naturally come with [viral] bacteriophages that are very specific to bacteria and our compound does not address those viruses. So those viruses will be untouched and our gut health will not be affected.
It's actually a little bit shocking when you look into the details of it, that something like 85 percent of humanity, maybe more, could be everybody -has one or more chronic viral infections.
So things like Epstein-Barr, cytomegalovirus (CMV), human papillomavirus, HPV- these viruses are extremely widespread. So an important part of our development process is to address issues like that about these viruses that hang around for a long time -and how do we eliminate them.
Some of them are very good at hiding. They're very effective. They've evolved over eons to be extremely good at that. The whole herpes family of viruses are particularly good at that sort of thing.
Q: Do you think it's possible that Kimer Med’s VTose could be targeted to seek out CMV infected T-cells and restore function?
Rick: We're very optimistic about that. We have, I think a unique approach, an interesting approach that's an extension of the prior work that was done, about how we can tackle this.
But that whole family of herpes viruses, which includes CMV, are particularly challenging targets, but we do believe that we have some techniques for addressing those issues. We have good hope but treating CMV in particular.
Q: And perhaps other viral issues that may play a role in aging and in the failing of the immune system more broadly than CMV?
Rick: CMV by itself has some known effects on the immune system and aging. It's believed to be a contributor for immunosenescence, which is basically kind of exhausting the immune system.
So if we can treat CMV we have good reason to believe that we could reverse that aspect of aging.
Q: Obviously we want to affect human diseases, but would it be more prudent for Kimer Med to focus on the veterinary route as a sure fire, long-term route to success?
Rick: The mission for our company is to reduce human and animal suffering in the world, and we believe we can have a dramatic effect on this. Not just in people, but in animals.
Animals of all kinds suffer from a surprisingly wide range of viral diseases, many of which are fatal. In cats infectious peritonitis is a 100 percent fatal disease and there's no vaccine for it. Many of these viruses in animals don't have vaccines and so they can be quite hard to treat, or fatal.
The regulatory path to a veterinary drug is, I think, shorter and easier, than it is to a human drug, so that is definitely something that we're doing.
Our approach is to tackle them in parallel. We believe we can use the same compound for treating humans, that we use for treating animals. So it's not like we have to develop a whole, separate drug line, or family of drugs, for that purpose.
Q: A decade ago when Dr. Todd Rider first came forward with this line of research, it was hailed by mainstream media, by the White House even, as a massive breakthrough. There was a lot of confetti that fell out of the sky. And then nobody could seem to actually make it happen!
How is it that Kimer Med, and you, have succeeded in bringing this dream to realization? What was key to that?
Rick: We adopted from the beginning a very business-oriented focus. That is, our intention here is to make a successful business. And secondarily to that, but not the primary driver: is the science.
So what we did is we said: we need to just pick and choose the particular areas that are absolutely environments for making a business. And so that's what we've been doing. And that's a big reason why we've been successful so far.
Q: It makes sense Rick. I know you have a software engineering background and so you'll appreciate the point that a visionary innovation often hypnotizes its creators.
As Apple was hypnotized in the early 1980's, with the promise of the Lisa computer –when what they really needed was a Mac. And so it seems to me you're in the business of making a Mac for this industry.
Rick: Yes, that's right absolutely right.
Q: You've already succeeded in raising millions in seed funding. You've got the backing of New Zealand's innovation agency. What opportunities are there, and when will they come, for others to participate?
Rick: Our near-term focus is on grant funding. There are a bunch of advantages to grant funding. From a business perspective we've successfully, as you said, raised some grant funding from the Callaghan Innovation here in New Zealand.
Tentatively, because some of this is a little bit hard to forecast in the current economic environment, and given the science that we have going on, and a bunch of other factors; but we'd like to pursue Series A financing, sometime this year. But the exact timing has still not been set.
So at that stage there would be an opportunity for others to participate. We would love the help. We're looking for, and we will need, a lot of money to do this; because that's just the nature of drug development. So we very much would appreciate help and input from wherever we can find it.
Q: Pharma will cast their eyes in this direction. How does the company position itself in that field of behemoths?
Rick: The conventional approach to that sort of thing is developing a solid IP foundation which we just spoke about.
But the disadvantage that ‘Big Pharma’ has, is that they're big. So there's a lot of momentum there and its size is not always an advantage because they just move more slowly.
So we're very open to cooperating, as opposed to competing. We want all of us to be successful in these endeavors, and cooperation can actually be to their benefit as well as to ours
Whether it's through licensing or partnering, the market is big enough for all of us to participate and be successful. Another nice thing about partnering is that the technology and the benefits flow in both directions. So they get some benefits, we get some benefits. Humanity gets some benefits. It's all good.
Q: At some point down the line could we introduce this into the human genome? How far out is that, or how sci-fi is that?
Rick: That's a very interesting subject. It is actually, believe it or not, an area we've investigated and our thinking is that something along those lines may indeed be possible at some stage.
There's something called a stable cell line which is a cell that when it divides it carries its genetic information along with it.
So the technical capability is there to do this. However the regulatory challenges are significant, and there's some additional technical complexity in carrying a stable cell line from the lab into a person, of course. But this is a rapidly evolving area. So I do think there's a chance that something like that may be possible someday.
Fintan Dunne: Congratulations to you all. It's taken so long to realize the initial dream. Fantastic that you are doing it now at KimerMed.co.nz.
That's where you can get in touch with Rick and the team. And that's where you can engage with this company, and help move this forward.
Congratulations again, Rick. Thank you very much.
Rick Kiessig: Pleasure speaking with you.
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Fintan Dunne is an independent journalist. The American Academy of AntiAging Medicine is a certification body for the antiaging medical discipline. Neither have any commercial connection to Kimer Med.
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