February 23, 2018

DARPA Names Researchers Working to Halt Outbreaks in 60 Days or Less

Quickly produced nucleic-acid-based technologies may hold key to body creating protective antibodies | outreach@darpa.mil | DARPA News

The increasing threat of infectious diseases is intensifying the need for breakthrough technologies and capabilities to protect first responders and equip them with therapeutics that can halt the impact of infectious agents. Current approaches for recent public health emergencies due to infectious diseases have not produced effective preventive or therapeutic solutions in a relevant timescale. Examples from recent outbreaks such as H3N2 (flu), Ebola, and Zika viruses highlight the significant lag in deployment and efficacy of life-saving solutions.

To address the growing threat from infectious diseases as well as to properly equip DoD Service members who regularly deploy worldwide to provide assistance in all manner of high-risk environments, DARPA launched the Pandemic Prevention Platform program (P3). The P3 program, which began in 2017, seeks to halt the spread of any infectious disease outbreak before it can escalate into a pandemic. This last weekend, at the AAAS Annual Meeting in Austin, Texas, Col. Matthew Hepburn, M.D., the program manager for P3, announced that all performer institutions are now on contract and moving forward with the program’s goals of developing technology to halt the spread of pandemic infectious diseases. The institutions funded through the P3 program include Duke University, Vanderbilt University, MedImmune, and Abcellera Biologics Inc.

Under the program, P3 performer teams are developing technologies for an end-to-end pandemic response platform that includes the ability to study viruses for downstream antibody discovery and final evaluation and testing of candidate therapeutic products. Teams will demonstrate the ability to rapidly discover and optimize antibodies so that they are most effective against an infectious agent. Further, the P3 teams are tasked with developing technologies to deliver antibodies using nucleic acid technology, and achieve sufficient serum concentrations of the antibodies for protection against the pathogen within three days after administration.

The nucleic-acid-based technologies that are central to P3 research, particularly those focused on DNA and RNA, include some developed under DARPA’s Autonomous Diagnostics to Enable Prevention and Therapeutics (ADEPT) program. Through these tools, researchers can identify protective antibodies from recovering patients and then manufacture genetic constructs capable of instructing a patient’s body to produce similar protective antibodies. Significant quantities of these nucleic acid “blueprints” can be rapidly manufactured compared to existing antibody production methods.

“Advances in medical countermeasures have formed a strong foundation, enabling the creation of a true end-to-end pandemic prevention platform. However, experience gained from conventional responses to emerging infectious diseases has demonstrated that significant bottlenecks hinder the rapid response to an emerging infectious threat,” said Hepburn. “P3 seeks to demonstrate an ability to rapidly produce virus needed to test and evaluate therapies, obtain high potency antibodies within the first weeks of an outbreak, and to scale delivery methods into humans to produce protective levels inside the patient.”

According to Hepburn, P3 performers are expected to demonstrate safety of their nucleic acid product against one target pathogen in a phase I clinical trial. Ultimately, the performer teams will be evaluated on the results of their clinical trial and their ability to complete the end-to-end process within 60 days from the time the pathogen-containing sample is first obtained. Also, to demonstrate the broad utility of the platform, each team will target a variety of viral pathogens including influenza, chikungunya, MERS-CoV, and Mayaro virus, among others.

For more information on the P3 program, please visit: http://www.darpa.mil/program/pandemic-prevention-platform.

Also, to hear Dr. Hepburn talk about P3 as well as the rest of his research portfolio at DARPA, listen to him on the just-released Voices from DARPA Podcast episode, The Disease Slayer: http://www.darpa.mil/about-us/podcast.

Image Caption: The Pandemic Prevention Platform (P3) program aims to support military readiness and global stability through pursuit of novel methods to dramatically accelerate discovery, integration, pre-clinical testing, and manufacturing of medical countermeasures against infectious diseases.