DARPA calls for nanomedicines to fight biothreats

The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency recently made a request for the development of an all-out replacement for antibiotics, the decades-old standard for eliminating disease-causing bacteria.

Last year, federal officials said that Americans were close to reaching a post-antibiotic era, which is exactly what DARPA appears to be after as long as they have a replacement ready, according to Wired.com.

DARPA hopes to establish an emerging field of nanomedicine that would be used to fight biological threats. The agency's Rapidly Adaptable Nanotherapeutics seeks to develop a platform capable of rapidly synthesizing nanoparticles to target unknown pathogens and even genetically engineered bioweapons.

Currently, antibiotics work by interfering with the functioning or spread of bacteria. Some target a wide variety of pathogens, while others are more specific. Increasingly, both types are vulnerable to the rise of bacterial resistance. Even as scientists continue to develop new antibiotics, the new medication is similarly prone to the development of resistance, Wired.com reports.

With engineered bacterial threats, most conventional antibiotics could be made useless through genetic engineering. Genetic engineering can even turn benign gut bacteria into a lethal, untreatable bioweapon.

DARPA wants researchers to instead develop nanoparticles, tiny drug delivery systems that can carry medication molecules to anywhere in the body. DARPA ideally would like to develop nanoparticles loaded with “small interfering RNA,” a class of molecules that can shut down specific genes and by sent directly to the cells responsible for an infection.

Researchers have already shown how to engineer siRNA and move it into nanoparticles. They were recently used to protect four primates from a deadly strain of ebola infection.