The Defense Advance Research Program Agency (DARPA) released their Strategic Plan in May 2009. DARPA’s Bio Revolution program has several major programs. One of the projects involves making advances in biological warfare defense. DARPA is working to shrink the time when a pathogen enters the body and the time it takes for researchers to produce millions of effective vaccines/therapeutics. The goal is to do this in 16 weeks or less.
DARPA researchers are able to identify the DNA of a pathogen that is operational. The next step is to find the weak spot in the pathogen where a therapy can be directed. Instead of trying to find one target for every new pathogen and then developing a therapy for each, DARPA has found common targets among many different pathogens and can identify common therapies to take out the whole classes of pathogens. While there is no silver bullet to take out all pathogens, there has been substantial progress. This technique identified a single target weakness common to Ebola, cowpox, and influenza.
DARPA has also developed approaches to dramatically increase the effectiveness of vaccines. One agent, CpG, has been shown in some cases to reduce the dose required to achieve immunity and the number of booster shots needed to maintain immunity. With CpG, DARPA has demonstrated a nearly nine fold improvement in response to the anthrax vaccine and has significantly shortened the time when soldiers will have full protection from anthrax. CpG is in advanced clinical trials for influenza and biodefense vaccines.
DARPA’s Rapid Vaccine Assessment program is working on new ways to test vaccines. Now DARPA is able to model the human immune system using a high throughput automated system. This platform significantly reduces the time, expense, and risk involved with pharmaceutical and vaccine development by providing human clinical trials in a virtual test tube.
This technology will enable rapid screening of candidate vaccines within weeks instead of years and allow vaccine manufacturers to improve vaccine safety and effectiveness before beginning clinical trials. DARPA’s Accelerated Manufacturing of Pharmaceuticals program is producing technology for large-scale manufacturing.
DARPA is making a major effort to help improve the chances for the wounded to survive battlefield injuries by developing advanced combat casualty care technologies. One project is using simple automated ventilators suitable for the combat medic. Existing field ventilation devices needed to be operated by hand, sometimes requiring medics to make a terrible choice between continuing to help someone breathe or leave that person to treat other casualties. DARPA’s Simplified Automated Ventilator Portable Ventilator program has developed an automated “Ambu Bag” that combat medics can use in the field that is simple to operate, safe, rugged, and inexpensive.
DARPA’s Preventing Violent Explosive Neurological Trauma (PREVENT) program is a basic research program looking for the mechanisms of neurological injury particularly traumatic brain injuries caused by blasts. PREVENT will scientifically characterize and understand how blasts cause neurological injury and the cumulative effects on the brain from repeated small blasts. Once this is understood, protective technologies can be designed to protect the soldiers.
Another major effort is to develop new materials, processes, and devices that are inspired by living systems to enhance military systems. DARPA is letting nature be a guide toward better engineering. DARPA is working to devise a machine that could come close to the brain’s ability to recognize visual patterns. The NeoVision2 program is working to understand the mammalian visual pathway and the brain activity and then mimic it using state-of-the-art microchip designs in silicon-based devices.
DARPA is always working on projects to improve and maintain peak soldier performance. One project involves using a new simple technology to both cool down troops who have become overheated, and warm up troops who have become chilled. The Rapid Thermal Exchange Device is a special glove that uses the blood vessels in the palm of the hand to transfer warmth to or from the bloodstream.
Another issue is to reduce pain for the injured or wounded soldiers. DARPA is developing biodegradable self-regulating drug delivery systems to enable feedback regulated release in response to biomarkers correlated with drug efficacy and/or toxicity. This will enable therapeutic doses to be given while eliminating the possibility of overdoses.
DARPA is also working to restore combat capabilities after severe injuries. Research is ongoing to restore the function of complex tissue, such as muscle, nerves, and skin, after traumatic injuries on the battlefield.
DARPA’s flagship prosthetics program is heavily invested in improving prosthetic arms that can be directly controlled by the brain. Progress has been made and clinical trials are already underway at Walter Reed and Brooke Army Medical Centers. Full clinical trials with completely neutrally controlled prosthetics with functions almost identical to natural limbs are scheduled to begin in two years.
In addition to the major efforts to obtain maximum results for soldiers, DARPA has also initiated the Bio-Info-Micro program. The program has been developing synergies among biology, information technology, and micro and nanotechnology to bring together science and technology from these areas to produce new capabilities
To read the full report, go to www.darpa.mil/DOCS/StratPlan09.pdf.