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DARPA Director Talks Promise of Life Sciences Research

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It's not artificial intelligence, quantum computing, or anything involving lasers that the director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency believes to be the coolest area of research for DARPA. It's the life sciences, he said, and it's a field with a lot of avenues to be explored.

A gloved hand holds a medical device with multiple pipettes.
DNA Prep
A medical technologist uses a multichannel pipetting technique to prepare patient DNA for genetic testing at Keesler Air Force Base, Miss., March 16, 2016.
Photo By: Kemberly Groue, Air Force
VIRIN: 160316-F-BD983-027A

During a discussion with Northeastern University President Joseph E. Aoun at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington yesterday, Steven H. Walker said the life sciences trumps other areas of research as holding the most promise for the future.

"That’s the area that I see the most incredible technical leaps and bounds every day," Walker said. "DARPA researchers looking at how to make gene editing safe and actually reverse a gene edit if they need to," he added.

"You might think that gene editing and biology and [the National Institutes of Health] has billions of dollars. Yes, that work is ongoing, it's being funded. But it's not ... as purpose driven as we'd like."

A gloved hand squirts blood onto a paper card.
Blood Sample
A lab technician uses a pipette to put blood on a DNA card at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, Nov. 8, 2018.
Photo By: Air Force Staff Sgt. Nicole Leidholm
VIRIN: 181108-F-BH656-0092A

One DARPA program called "Safe Genes" is meant in part to enable reversal of gene editing's effects if need be, he said. "We have actually made a lot of progress there in being able to control gene edits," he added. "That will, I think, change our world and the ability to actually cure disease."

Walker also said DARPA would like to be able to protect soldiers from disease and chemical or biological warfare agents by modifying those soldiers genetically to make them able to resist.

"Can you actually protect a soldier on the battlefield from chemical weapons and biological weapons by controlling their genome, ... having their genome produce proteins that would automatically protect the soldier from the inside out?" he said. "Just the amount of technological change in that area and the ... more capability we have to engineer biology for use, is why I think it's the most exciting field at DARPA right now, and why we stood up an office in 2014 to focus on it."

A hand uses tweezers to manipulate the contents of a petri dish.
Mosquito Adjustment
A medical professional adjusts a mosquito in a petri dish at Kadena Air Base, Japan, Jan. 24, 2019.
Photo By: Air Force Staff Sgt. Micaiah Anthony
VIRIN: 190124-F-DM566-0008A

Walker said making soldiers biologically adaptable to threats is a good idea because it no longer makes sense to have medications or remedies stockpiled for every possible threat.

"You can't stockpile enough of the vaccine or antivirus capability to protect the population against that in the future. … This is all research at this point — we don't have the capability yet," he said. "But that is why you want to be able to actually have your body be the antibody factory, if possible."

Walker said the goal is not to use genetics to make super soldiers, but rather to make soldiers who can be kept safe.

A gloved hand holds a small plastic vial.
Checking Dates
A technician checks expiration dates on reagents in the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System’s Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory.
Photo By: Air Force Staff Sgt. Nicole Leidholm
VIRIN: 180725-F-BH656-0009A

"I think our focus is about the protection aspect and the restoration, versus enhancements," he said. "All these technologies, they are dual use. You can use them for good, and you can use them for evil. DARPA is about using them for good to protect our warfighters."

Another DARPA project is rapid development of vaccines for never-before-seen viruses.

"This is about being able to inject the cells in your muscles, say to produce antibodies automatically, for a vaccine that we've never seen before, and do it in 60 days or less to protect a large population," Walker said. "This is work we've been funding for about 10 years at universities, and now we are going into clinical trials with this as we speak."

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