By Katie Drummond
The Pentagon’s efforts at speedier responses to infectious diseases is getting turbocharged, as researchers at Arizona State University kick off a program to develop vaccines that can inoculate against unknown pathogens — and do it within a week.
Darpa, the military’s out-there research agency, has given $5.3 million for the project to ASU’s Biodesign Institute. And the grant is only one part of a much bigger Darpa initiative, called Accelerated Manufacture of Pharmaceuticals. Earlier this year, the agency funded programs to produce vaccines using tobacco plants and a prophetic almanac that would anticipate pathogenic mutations before they happen.
Tobacco-based production would turn a year-long process into a four-week one. But for at-risk troops, Darpa wants something even faster: a vaccine to address any pathogen, developed in seven days and ready for injection shortly after.
“I don’t know if we can pull this off, but I think this basic idea might work,” ASU researcher Dr. Steven Albert Johnson says of his team’s plan. Using thousands of synthetic antibodies, called synbodies, they’ll create an immunity toolkit that can be combined in myriad ways to tackle virtually any pathogen.
“Take the bug, put it on a slide and then find appropriate bindings,” Johnson says. “If somebody gave you a Bug X, and you already had basically a Lego system of pre-made peptides, you find two that will bind and make a high-affinity agent.”
About 10,000 synbodies would be sufficient to stave off — in theory — any imaginable pathogen. But researchers estimate that around 100 will suffice for Darpa’s needs. Once the synbodies are made, they can be stockpiled and pulled out whenever a new threat emerges.
And if the method does take off, it’d offer a major boost for civilian vaccine production, too. But short of a massive deadly outbreak, we’d likely not get our vaccines quite so fast. For deployed troops, the Pentagon could invoke “emergency protocol” — meaning Darpa’s one-week timeline would skip over clinical trials and FDA approval, which can take up to a decade to complete.