Last month, at a conference celebrating DARPA, the research arm of the Defense Department, FBI Special Agent Edward You declared, "The 21st century will be the revolution of the life sciences."
Biomedical engineer Kevin Zhao has a sensor in his arm and chest that monitors his oxygen level in real time.
Indeed, four years ago, the agency dedicated a new office solely to advancing biotechnology. Its primary goal is to combat bioterrorism, protect U.S. forces, and promote warfighter readiness. But its research could also carry over to improve health care for the general public.
With an annual budget of about $3 billion, DARPA's employees oversee about 250 research and development programs, working with contractors from corporations, universities, and government labs to bring new technologies to life.
Check out these three current programs:
1) IMPLANTABLE SENSORS TO MEASURE OXYGEN, LACTATE, AND GLUCOSE LEVELS IN REAL TIME
Biomedical engineer Kevin Zhao has a sensor in his arm and his chest that monitors his oxygen level in those tissues in real time. With funding from DARPA for the program "In Vivo Nanoplatforms," he developed soft, flexible hydrogels that are injected just beneath the skin to perform the monitoring and that sync to a smartphone app to give the user immediate health insights.
A first-in-man trial for the glucose sensor is now underway in Europe for monitoring diabetics, according to Zhao. Volunteers eat sugary food to spike their glucose levels and prompt the monitor to register the changes.
"If this pans out, with approval from FDA, then consumers could get the sensors implanted in their core to measure their levels of glucose, oxygen, and lactate," Zhao said.
Lactate, especially, interests DARPA because it's a first responder molecule to the onset of trauma, sepsis, and potentially infection.
"The sensor could potentially detect rise of these [body chemistry numbers] and alert the user to prevent onset of dangerous illness."
2) NEAR INSTANTANEOUS VACCINE PROTECTION DURING A PANDEMIC
Traditional vaccines can take months or years to develop, then weeks to become effective once you get it. But when an unknown virus emerges, there's no time to waste.
This program, called P3, envisions a much more ambitious approach to stop a pandemic in its tracks.
"We want to confer near instantaneous protection by doing it a different way – enlist the body as a bioreactor to produce therapeutics," said Col. Matthew Hepburn, the program manager.
So how would it work?
To fight a pandemic, we will need 20,000 doses of a vaccine in 60 days.
If you have antibodies against a certain infection, you'll be protected against that infection. This idea is to discover the genetic code for the antibody to a specific pathogen, manufacture those pieces of DNA and RNA, and then inject the code into a person's arm so the muscle cells will begin producing the required antibodies.
"The amazing thing is that it actually works, at least in animal models," said Hepburn. "The mouse muscles made enough protective antibodies so that the mice were protected."
The next step is to test the approach in humans, which the program will do over the next two years.
But the hard part is actually not discovering the genetic code for highly potent antibodies, according to Hepburn. In fact, researchers already have been able to do so in two to four weeks' time.
"The hard part is once I have an antibody, a large pharma company will say in 2 years, I can make 100-200 doses. Give us 4 years to get to 20,000 doses. That's not good enough," Hepburn said.
To fight a pandemic, we will need 20,000 doses of a vaccine in 60 days.
"We have to fundamentally change the idea that it takes a billion dollars and ten years to make a drug," he concluded. "We're going to do something radically different."
3) RAPID DIAGNOSING OF PATHOGEN EXPOSURE THROUGH EPIGENETICS
Imagine that you come down with a mysterious illness. It could be caused by a virus, bacteria, or in the most extreme catastrophe, a biological agent from a weapon of mass destruction.
What if a portable device existed that could identify--within 30 minutes—which pathogen you have been exposed to and when? It would be pretty remarkable for soldiers in the field, but also for civilians seeking medical treatment.
This is the lofty ambition of a DARPA program called Epigenetic Characterization and Observation, or ECHO.
Its success depends on a biological phenomenon known as the epigenome. While your DNA is relatively immutable, your environment can modify how your DNA is expressed, leaving marks of exposure that register within seconds to minutes; these marks can persist for decades. It's thanks to the epigenome that identical twins – who share identical DNA – can differ in health, temperament, and appearance.
These three mice are genetically identical. Epigenetic differences, however, result in vastly different observed characteristics.
Reading your epigenetic marks could theoretically reveal a time-stamped history of your body's environmental exposures.
Researchers in the ECHO program plan to create a database of signatures for exposure events, so that their envisioned device will be able to quickly scan someone's epigenome and refer to the database to sort out a diagnosis.
"One difficult part is to put a timestamp on this result, in addition to the sign of which exposure it was -- to tell us when this exposure happened," says Thomas Thomou, a contract scientist who is providing technical assistance to the ECHO program manager.
Other questions that remain up in the air for now: Do all humans have the same epigenetic response to the same exposure events? Is it possible to distinguish viral from bacterial exposures? Does dose and duration of exposure affect the signature of epigenome modification?
The program will kick off in January 2019 and is planned to last four years, as long as certain milestones of development are reached along the way. The desired prototype would be a simple device that any untrained person could operate by taking a swab or a fingerprick.
"In an outbreak," says Dr. Thomou, "it will help everyone on the ground immediately to have a rapidly deployable machine that will give you very quick answers to issues that could have far-reaching ramifications for public health safety."
On the evening of November 28, 1942, more than 1,000 revelers from the Boston College-Holy Cross football game jammed into the Cocoanut Grove, Boston's oldest nightclub. When a spark from faulty wiring accidently ignited an artificial palm tree, the packed nightspot, which was only designed to accommodate about 500 people, was quickly engulfed in flames. In the ensuing panic, hundreds of people were trapped inside, with most exit doors locked. Bodies piled up by the only open entrance, jamming the exits, and 490 people ultimately died in the worst fire in the country in forty years.
"People couldn't get out," says Dr. Kenneth Marshall, a retired plastic surgeon in Boston and president of the Cocoanut Grove Memorial Committee. "It was a tragedy of mammoth proportions."
Within a half an hour of the start of the blaze, the Red Cross mobilized more than five hundred volunteers in what one newspaper called a "Rehearsal for Possible Blitz." The mayor of Boston imposed martial law. More than 300 victims—many of whom subsequently died--were taken to Boston City Hospital in one hour, averaging one victim every eleven seconds, while Massachusetts General Hospital admitted 114 victims in two hours. In the hospitals, 220 victims clung precariously to life, in agonizing pain from massive burns, their bodies ravaged by infection.
The scene of the fire.
Boston Public Library
Tragic Losses Prompted Revolutionary Leaps<p>But there is a silver lining: this horrific disaster prompted dramatic changes in safety regulations to prevent another catastrophe of this magnitude and led to the development of medical techniques that eventually saved millions of lives. It transformed burn care treatment and the use of plasma on burn victims, but most importantly, it introduced to the public a new wonder drug that revolutionized medicine, midwifed the birth of the modern pharmaceutical industry, and nearly doubled life expectancy, from 48 years at the turn of the 20<sup>th</sup> century to 78 years in the post-World War II years.</p><p>The devastating grief of the survivors also led to the first published study of post-traumatic stress disorder by pioneering psychiatrist Alexandra Adler, daughter of famed Viennese psychoanalyst Alfred Adler, who was a student of Freud. Dr. Adler studied the anxiety and depression that followed this catastrophe, according to the <em>New York Times</em>, and "later applied her findings to the treatment World War II veterans."</p><p>Dr. Ken Marshall is intimately familiar with the lingering psychological trauma of enduring such a disaster. His mother, an Irish immigrant and a nurse in the surgical wards at Boston City Hospital, was on duty that cold Thanksgiving weekend night, and didn't come home for four days. "For years afterward, she'd wake up screaming in the middle of the night," recalls Dr. Marshall, who was four years old at the time. "Seeing all those bodies lined up in neat rows across the City Hospital's parking lot, still in their evening clothes. It was always on her mind and memories of the horrors plagued her for the rest of her life."</p><p>The sheer magnitude of casualties prompted overwhelmed physicians to try experimental new procedures that were later successfully used to treat thousands of battlefield casualties. Instead of cutting off blisters and using dyes and tannic acid to treat burned tissues, which can harden the skin, they applied gauze coated with petroleum jelly. Doctors also refined the formula for using plasma--the fluid portion of blood and a medical technology that was just four years old--to replenish bodily liquids that evaporated because of the loss of the protective covering of skin.</p>
From Forgotten Lab Experiment to Wonder Drug<p>In 1928, Alexander Fleming discovered the curative powers of penicillin, which promised to eradicate infectious pathogens that killed millions every year. But the road to mass producing enough of the highly unstable mold was littered with seemingly unsurmountable obstacles and it remained a forgotten laboratory curiosity for over a decade. But Fleming never gave up and penicillin's eventual rescue from obscurity was a landmark in scientific history. </p><p>In 1940, a group at Oxford University, funded in part by the Rockefeller Foundation, isolated enough penicillin to test it on twenty-five mice, which had been infected with lethal doses of streptococci. Its therapeutic effects were miraculous—the untreated mice died within hours, while the treated ones played merrily in their cages, undisturbed. Subsequent tests on a handful of patients, who were brought back from the brink of death, confirmed that penicillin was indeed a wonder drug. But Britain was then being ravaged by the German Luftwaffe during the Blitz, and there were simply no resources to devote to penicillin during the Nazi onslaught.</p><p>In June of 1941, two of the Oxford researchers, Howard Florey and Ernst Chain, embarked on a clandestine mission to enlist American aid. Samples of the temperamental mold were stored in their coats. By October, the Roosevelt Administration had recruited four companies—Merck, Squibb, Pfizer and Lederle—to team up in a massive, top-secret development program. Merck, which had more experience with fermentation procedures, swiftly pulled away from the pack and every milligram they produced was zealously hoarded.</p><p>After the nightclub fire, the government ordered Merck to dispatch to Boston whatever supplies of penicillin that they could spare and to refine any crude penicillin broth brewing in Merck's fermentation vats. After working in round-the-clock relays over the course of three days, on the evening of December 1<sup>st</sup>, 1942, a refrigerated truck containing thirty-two liters of injectable penicillin left Merck's Rahway, New Jersey plant. It was accompanied by a convoy of police escorts through four states before arriving in the pre-dawn hours at Massachusetts General Hospital. Dozens of people were rescued from near-certain death in the first public demonstration of the powers of the antibiotic, and the existence of penicillin could no longer be kept secret from inquisitive reporters and an exultant public. The next day, the <em>Boston Globe</em> called it "priceless" and <em>Time</em> magazine dubbed it a "wonder drug."</p><p>Within fourteen months, penicillin production escalated exponentially, churning out enough to save the lives of thousands of soldiers, including many from the Normandy invasion. And in October 1945, just weeks after the Japanese surrender ended World War II, Alexander Fleming, Howard Florey and Ernst Chain were awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine. But penicillin didn't just save lives—it helped build some of the most innovative medical and scientific companies in history, including Merck, Pfizer, Glaxo and Sandoz. </p><p>"Every war has given us a new medical advance," concludes Marshall. "And penicillin was <em>the</em> great scientific advance of World War II."</p>
Conner Curran was diagnosed with Duchenne's muscular dystrophy in 2015 when he was four years old. It's the most severe form of the genetic disease, with a nearly inevitable progression toward total paralysis. Many Duchenne's patients die in their teens; the average lifespan is 26.
But Conner, who is now 10, has experienced some astonishing improvements in recent years. He can now walk for more than two miles at a time – an impossible journey when he was younger.
In 2018, Conner became the very first patient to receive gene therapy specific to treating Duchenne's. In the initial clinical trial of nine children, nearly 80 percent reacted positively to the treatment). A larger-scale stage 3 clinical trial is currently underway, with initial results expected next year.
Gene therapy involves altering the genes in an individual's cells to stop or treat a disease. Such a procedure may be performed by adding new gene material to existing cells, or editing the defective genes to improve their functionality.
Conner Curran holding a football post gene therapy treatment.
Courtesy of the Curran family