The elite Pentagon research unit that helped create the Internet and stealth fighter jets is now taking on diarrhea.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which is dedicated to maintaining the U.S. military’s technology edge, wants to develop a commercially viable medicine that delivers quick, temporary protection for soldiers from a variety of diseases such as the flu, diarrhea and malaria.
Such bugs are the bane of troops sent abroad. Diarrhea struck as many as 60 percent of deployed troops at the start of the Iraq war, said Mark Riddle, a U.S. Navy commander who performs military medical research at the Naval Medical Research Center in Silver Spring, Maryland. More than 1 million service days were sacrificed during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan “due to severe diarrhea in deployed forces,” DARPA said in program documents on a federal website.
“There’s a sense of urgency and you’re constantly thinking about where the next latrine is,” Riddle, who works on a separate military project studying diarrhea, said in a phone interview. “In that kind of situation you start wondering how well a soldier can perform, target bad guys and do his or her mission.”
The DARPA project seeks to create a system for making drugs based on nucleic acids such as DNA, which contain genetic codes, rather than the proteins, weakened or dead viruses that typically constitute vaccines and can take a long time to manufacture.
If the DARPA effort is successful, the government could provide the first vaccine manufacturing breakthrough in decades, said Art Caplan, director of medical ethics at New York University’s Langone Medical Center in New York.
“A lot of the way vaccines are made is through viruses growing on chicken eggs, which is basically old technology,” Caplan said in a phone interview.
GlaxoSmithKline Plc (GSK), based in London, Paris-based Sanofi (SNY:US) and other companies make flu shots, for example, that must be reformulated and then grown in eggs each year to accommodate the shifting virus, a time-consuming and costly process that has led to shortages.
There’s little incentive for drugmakers to invest in vaccine research because the profits pale in comparison with other drugs and devices, Caplan said.
“Selling a tetanus shot at 20 cents a head is not going to get you the kind of profits that you make with an erectile dysfunction drug that runs 25 bucks a use,” he said.
DARPA, whose website slogan is “Creating & Preventing Strategic Surprise,” has dedicated resources to drug research in the past. Last year the agency and the National Institutes of Health pledged a combined $140 million over five years to develop a way to test drug toxicity on chips containing human cells rather than lab rats and other animals. That project aims to boost the speed and accuracy of reviews required to win government approval of new treatments.
Researchers selected for the latest initiative will try to devise a drug that directs people’s own cells to produce antibodies to temporarily protect against a given disease. The method would allow quicker delivery of medicine because, “in effect, the body makes the drug,” Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Wattendorf, DARPA program manager, said in an e-mail.
He declined to say how much funding is available for the research or how many companies, universities or nonprofit groups will be selected to participate.
The project faces tough odds, said Tony Butler, an analyst with Barclays Plc in New York.
“There has been no success in using DNA to make a commercially available vaccine,” Butler said in a phone interview.
It’s not for lack of trying, he said. Merck & Co., (MRK:US) the Whitehouse Station, New Jersey-based drugmaker, has studied creating a DNA-based vaccine for flu, and there have been attempts to use DNA to protect against HIV, Butler said.
“These have never panned out in large-scale trials,” he said.
DARPA typically picks projects where the expected success rate is 10 percent or less, said Stephen Albert Johnston, co-director of the Center for Innovations in Medicine at Arizona State University.
“They’re supposed to be the high-risk guys,” Johnston said in a phone interview. “If they get too high of a success rate, they figure they aren’t taking enough risks.”
The research bureau was formed in 1958, after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first satellite, beating the U.S. The incident “showed that a fundamental change was needed in America’s defense science and technology programs,” according to the DARPA website.
Johnston, who has worked with DARPA on other military health research projects, said reaching the agency’s latest goal will be tough.
“They want to be able to give somebody genes that would encode a protein and make antibodies that would quickly go out and protect you,” he said. “And they don’t want it permanently there, they want it temporarily there, a burst of exposure to your immune system and then it goes away.”
Johnston said he hasn’t decided whether his research group will submit a proposal.
“If it worked well, any pharmaceutical company would be interested,” he said.
If the project is successful, new companies are more likely to immediately embrace the new technology than the biggest drugmakers like Pfizer Inc. (PFE:US) and Merck, said NYU’s Caplan.
“I would expect this would be attractive to startups, startups that would then sell themselves to big pharma,” he said.
The research program, which is expected to run for five years, is also geared toward developing a drug to protect troops against cholera, colds and malaria, according to DARPA. It said the military lost more days of work to malaria in endemic regions during the 20th century than bullets, even though some drugs exist to protect against the disease.
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