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New DARPA project aims to make vaccines obsolete

Dec. 6, 2013 - 04:30PM   |  
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The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency wants to reinvent the way bodies are taught to fight off deadly viruses and bacteria — without needing a vaccine to make it happen.

DARPA, the secretive Pentagon research arm, has hired Pfizer, Inc., to lead a program to build a technology that would induce the body to make protective antibodies to new diseases when someone has been exposed or infected.

If successful, the technology would completely bypass several steps now used to make vaccines against new and emerging biological threats.

Traditionally, the antigen of a pathogen is isolated and used to create a vaccine, which is then injected or given orally to a patient. The body then responds by producing antibodies to the perceived infection — an immune reaction that fights off future exposures.

But in a contract award announced Wednesday, the Defense Department said DARPA has hired Pfizer to develop a “technology platform to identify and subsequently induce the production of protective antibodies ... directly in an infected or exposed individual.”

DARPA researchers seem to think it’s possible to force the body to target the invading pathogen, isolate its antigen and produce an immune response all on its own.

If successful, the new technology would significantly reduce the time it takes to respond to a pandemic caused by a new or mutated disease.

Biological warfare experts and public health officials have long expressed concern over the potential threat of biological weapons and emerging viruses that have no cure.

Bioweapons experts told Congress Oct. 11 that the U.S. has a “significant national vulnerability” to deal with a biological threat and added that some rogue nations may already be producing biological weapons.

Also in the past several years, outbreaks of new viruses have occurred across the world. A new disease that emerged in Saudi Arabia, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS, has killed about 70 people since first being identified September 2012.

And SARS, or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, killed 800 from 2002 to 2003.

Pfizer will conduct research for the $7.7 million contract in Cambridge, Mass. The estimated completion date for the contract is 2016, according to the Pentagon.

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