Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Techy Tuesday - DARPA Investigating Nanoparticles to Fight Disease

It really shouldn't come as a surprise that DARPA - the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency - is very interested in ways to reduce the war fighter's susceptibility to disease.  Armies down through history have been hobbled in battle by diseases - everything from malaria, typhus, pneumonia and a host of other infections to trench foot (seriously gross pictures, BTW).  But an announcement in the "new contracts" section of one of the microwave engineering trade magazines I get caught my eye last week.  It was that a biomedical company in Pittsburgh was awarded a contract in the area of "In Vivo Nanoplatforms" (IVN):
DARPA’s In Vivo Nanoplatforms (IVN) program seeks to develop new classes of adaptable nanoparticles for persistent, distributed, unobtrusive physiologic and environmental sensing as well as the treatment of physiologic abnormalities, illness, and infectious disease.
The Latin translation of "In Vivo" is "in the living", and here means "in living people".  Medical research is often broadly classified as being either in vivo or in vitro - in glass: test tubes, Petri dishes, tissue cultures, anything outside living critters.  "Persistent, distributed, unobtrusive" sound (to me) like the idea is to inject these nanoparticles into soldiers' general circulation (blood stream) so that the particles are there when needed.  Perhaps more would be injected for a faster treatment of an acute condition?  It's possible nobody knows how all this would work, yet. 
DARPA linked to this image from Northwestern University of what appears to represent a gold nanoparticle with strands of RNA on its surface.  On a second page, DARPA says:
While the medical community has been using small-molecule therapeutics to treat diseases for years, traditional drugs are often effective against only one disease, are associated with significant side effects and are very expensive to develop. “Doctors have been waiting for a flexible platform that could help them treat a variety of problematic diseases,” said Timothy Broderick, physician and DARPA program manager. “DARPA seeks to do just that by advancing revolutionary technologies such as nanoparticles coated with small interfering RNA (siRNA). RNA plays an active role in all biological processes, and by targeting RNA in specific cells we may be able to stop the processes that cause diseases of all types—from contagious, difficult-to-treat bacteria such as MRSA to traumatic brain injury.”  (emphasis added - SiG - it explains the image)
The program is divided into Diagnostic and Theraputic sides. 
The IVN Therapeutics (IVN:Tx) program effort seeks unobtrusive nanoplatforms for rapidly treating disease in warfighters. This program aims to develop nanotherapeutics that:
  • Increase safety and minimize the dose required for clinically relevant efficacy
  • Limit off-target effects
  • Limit immunogenicity
  • Increase effectiveness by targeting delivery to specific tissues and/or uptake by cells of interest
  • Increase bioavailability
  • Knock down medically relevant molecular target(s)
  • Increase resistance to degradation
Successful nanotherapeutic platforms should enable treatment of military-relevant diseases such as infections caused by multi-drug resistant organisms and conditions due to traumatic brain injury.
In my mind, this is way cool.  DARPA specializes in things that are beyond the usual budgets and approval cycles; a bit riskier, but with potentially big payoffs.  Anything that can knock down "multi-drug resistant organisms" (MRSA) sounds like a good thing in my book, and it goes without saying that anything that can prevent the horrible damages from traumatic brain injury would benefit the whole world.  


  1. Nano technology like this can be used to fight disease.....or it could be used to transmit disease. This tech is not benign.

  2. It's an improvement to the global grey goo scenario, because it'll just be individual, easy-to-clean puddles.

  3. Dan - a scarier prospect might be that they don't intend for it to be a bioweapon, but it becomes one by the Law of Unintended Consequences.

  4. The scary part is what bad people could do with this intentionally. What might happen accidentally could be the stuff nightmares and scifi is made of. Nanotech is the tech that could bring singularity to us first.....before programs in PC's and etherspace get there.

  5. Delayed commenting because I forgot to...

    A friend of mine from high school was injured while on active duty in Iraq around 2002/3 - IED messed up his arm pretty thoroughly. He spent a lot of time at Brooke Army Medical/Ft. Sam Houston, and his family spent a lot of time there with him.

    His mother is a gregarious type and loves listening to people, and spent a lot of her time wandering the grounds just being an ear for any soldier who needed it. One of them told her that, "They injected these little robots in me to heal me faster."

    I'm paraphrasing, obviously, but I also believe that it was quite possible and perhaps likely that the government was doing initial nano research at that point.