DARPA awards contract for rapid therapeutic development

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency recently awarded a two year, $5.3 million grant to Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute to help protect the military from exposure to infectious diseases during deployment.

The key to this process, and its most daunting challenge, will be to reduce the time it takes to develop the therapeutic against an unknown pathogen to seven days. It normally takes a therapeutic 10 years to go from the lab to the marketplace, according to ASUNews.edu.

“Half of this period involves all the research and development of the therapeutic, the chemistry to make it, and so on,” Stephen Albert Johnston, director of the Biodesign Institute’s Center for Innovations in Medicine, told ASUNews.edu. “The other half is all the clinical trials testing and FDA approval.”

The seven day challenge was issued to the research community as part of DARPA’s Accelerated Critical Therapeutics program, developed to respond to emerging and novel biological threats.

The ASU team’s rapid approach, involving the use of synthetic antibodies, or synbodies, may, in the end, find its way into a broad range of applications that could benefit the general public as well as the military. These include medical diagnostics and vaccine development, ASUNews.edu reports.

Synbodies, like their human immune system counterparts, chemically locate invasive microbes, bind with them and then neutralize them. Against a selected pathogen, synbodies can be rapidly produced and stockpiled using high-throughput technology. This allows scientists to create custom therapeutics against virtually any disease in a short amount of time.

The researchers have calculated that approximately 10,000 randomly manufactured synbody components, known as peptides, would give enough variety to target just about any known biological threat. The pool of synbodies for the DARPA test, however, has been drastically reduced.

“Our idea is to screen a large library of possible pathogens, identifying a broad class of effective binders," Chris Diehnel, an assistant research professor for the project, told ASUNews.edu. “We would then produce stocks of peptides to be kept waiting in the wings, so that when we have a live fire test, the unknown pathogen can be screened to identifying several low binding affinity peptides. These we will rapidly assemble into a synbody, targeting that pathogen specifically.”

The major test for the research group will come approximately a year after it receives the DARPA money. At that point, the team will be presented with a pathogen and be given only 14 days to come up with an effective therapeutic. In two years, they will be given another pathogen and the time will be reduced by half.