November 23, 2011 report
DARPA calls for antibiotic replacement
As noted in the RFP, the military has seen firsthand the problems with current antibiotics; soldiers experiencing wounds in war, especially those involved in fires, that develop bacterial infections now require triple the amount of hospital time to recover as doctor’s plow through a host of antibiotics in trying to find the one that will work. Clearly frightened at the prospect of sending soldiers into battle where they may encounter bioengineered bacterial agents, the top brass has decided it’s time to take another approach and to get on it now.
Instead of working to develop new antibiotics, DARPA proposes the development and use of so-called nanoparticles to deliver gene altering chemicals directly to the cells of bacteria to kill them. In addition, they are hoping that someone will be able to come up with a way to make it so that the nanoparticles and chemicals they carry can be reprogrammed on-the-fly so as to combat newly evolved or created bacteria as soon as they appear. The idea is that the nanoparticles would carry something called small interfering RNA (siRNA) which are groups of molecules that would actually do the work of shutting down the genes inside the cells of the bacteria.
DARPA has laid out the project in three phases: Study what’s out there now, develop the nanoparticle delivery system and siRNA, and devise a means for rapidly reprogramming them.
On its face, the project seems rather simple, after all, this is not science fiction, DARPA points out that just last year a research group used siRNA delivered by nanoparticles to kill the Ebola virus in four primates. Unfortunately, the problem is, it’s not as easy as it looks, all of this science is still in its infancy and if a way can be found to do what is being asked, it likely will take years, if not decades to fully develop. The success against the Ebola virus was one agent against just one virus in a structured environment. To do what DARPA wants would mean using one technique to kill any and all bad bacteria and/or viruses. Also, if it can be done, no one really knows if the procedure would be reprogrammable, much less whether it could be done on-the-fly, so it’s not really clear if anyone will be able to achieve what DARPA is asking for; though it seems for the sake of all of us, we better hope so. Turning back the clock to a time when we were helpless against the onslaught of bacterial infections would be difficult to swallow, to say the least.
© 2011 PhysOrg.com