WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
The increasing threat from bio-terrorism, and the resurgence of new global pandemics such as Ebola, have shown how out dated today’s state of the art vaccine procedures are, DARPA’s new P3 program aims to re-dress the balance.
Over the past several years DARPA funded researchers have pioneered a number of new RNA vaccine technologies – a medical countermeasure against infectious diseases that uses coded genetic constructs to artificially stimulate the production of viral proteins within the human body, that in turn trigger a protective antibody response that cures the disease.
Now, as a follow on effort DARPA want to go one step further and they’ve created a new program called the Pandemic Prevention Platform (P3) program which aims to develop the foundation of an entirely new system that can stop the spread of any viral disease outbreak, irrespective of its type, or origin, before it can escalate to pandemic status, within just sixty days – something that today is unheard of. And if they can pull it off then it would make today’s state of the art vaccine procedures – which in some cases don’t deliver treatments to patients until months, years, or even decades after a viral threat emerges – look as out dated as the horse and carriage.
“DARPA’s goal is to create a technology platform that can place a protective, working treatment into health providers’ hands within 60 days of a pathogen being identified, and have that treatment induce protection in patients within three days of administration. We need to be able to move at this speed considering how quickly outbreaks can get out of control,” said Matt Hepburn, the P3 Program Manager, “and the technology needs to work on any viral disease, whether it’s one humans have faced before or not.”
Recent outbreaks of viral infectious diseases such as Zika, H1N1 influenza and Ebola have put a spotlight on humanity’s ability to stop and contain pandemics, and today’s state of the art medical countermeasures typically take many months or even years to develop, produce, distribute, and administer, which is often far too late for the people who are affected – such as the tens of thousands of people who died during 2016’s Ebola outbreak who might have lived if the recent cure had been announced earlier. By contrast, the envisioned P3 platform would cut these long response times down to weeks and stay within the window of relevance for containing an outbreak.
Key to this undertaking are nucleic-acid-based technologies – those that are centered on DNA and RNA – including some developed under DARPA’s Autonomous Diagnostics to Enable Prevention and Therapeutics (ADEPT) program. Using the new tools, it’s hoped that scientists can identify protective antibodies from recovering patients and then, using a biological version of reverse engineering, manufacture genetic cures that, when delivered, can instruct an individual’s body to produce new protective antibodies which can then be blueprinted and synthesised in huge volumes quickly.
However, in order to achieve this utopia DARPA and its partners need breakthroughs in not one, but three separate areas, and that’s where the P3 program comes in.
These areas include growing viruses that can be evaluated and examined in the lab, increasing the evolution rate and the potency of antibodies outside the human body, and developing new ways to effectively deliver new nucleic-acid-base protective treatments to patients – none of which is easy, and achieving and integrating breakthroughs in all of these areas will require choreographed cooperation among researchers and engineers specialising in areas including immunology, microbiology, virology, medical infectious diseases, molecular biology, and medical countermeasure product development and manufacturing.
The DARPA funded teams will be required to demonstrate their integrated platforms in five simulations during the planned four year program. Initially the teams will test their “platforms” using pathogens of their choice, but eventually they will test them using DARPA selected pathogens – including two demonstrations in which the identity of the pathogen will remain a mystery. Furthermore, to ensure the new platforms are safe for human use each team will have to complete a Phase I clinical safety trial before the end of the program.
One of the biggest benefits of the nucleic-acid-based approach is that the genetic constructs that will be introduced in people’s body’s will be able to be processed quickly and won’t integrate with their genome. Similarly, the antibodies produced in response to the treatment would only be present in the body for weeks to months. This is consistent with DARPA’s intent with P3, which is to safely deliver transient immunity to a virus, halting the spread of disease by creating a firewall.
“Our country asks our military Service members to deploy globally and provide humanitarian assistance in all manner of high-risk environments. We owe it to them to develop the best protections possible,” said Hepburn, a US Army physician who previously served as Director of Medical Preparedness on the White House National Security Staff, “if we’re successful, DARPA could take viral infectious disease outbreaks off the table as a threat to US troops and as a driver of global instability.”
While the project will initially be aimed at military applications it’s not hard to see how, in a world full of terror threats, where the cost of making new synthetic viruses is falling all the time, it could one day be applied to civilian populations and applications so I for one will be keeping an eye on it.