BOSTON--Researchers at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute have received a $5.6 million grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the Army Research Office (ARO) to develop transient immunity against known, unknown, naturally occurring, or engineered disease-causing pathogens. The ultimate goal is to develop a viable countermeasure to an unknown pathogen within seven days of receiving it in a laboratory.
Wayne A. Marasco, MD, PhD, of the Department of Cancer Immunology and AIDS at Dana-Farber and an associate professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, is the project's principal investigator.
Since the mid 1990's, DARPA's Defense Sciences Office has pioneered advances across the full spectrum of bio-warfare defense needs, including the development of advanced diagnostics and medical therapies that are active against an entire range of infectious agents.
"This grant will support revolutionary advances in rapid response to naturally evolving and engineered pathogens," says Marasco. "DARPA has issued a challenge to develop a treatment to unknown threats in just seven days, and we are excited about the opportunity to meet this challenge."
Disease-causing pathogens can be spread through natural and intentional means. Factors responsible for the increase in newly emerging and re-emerging pathogens include increased animal-human interface, increased population densities and international travel, climate change as it affects migration of animals such as birds, some of which could be disease carriers and the narrowing of genetic diversity among food animal stocks.
In addition, the proliferation of genetic engineering technologies that can be easily redirected from beneficent to offensive purposes, and the covert biological sabotage of food animals are all great biodefense concerns.
"In the past, medical responses to large-scale disease outbreaks have been very slow," said Marasco. "Often it has taken many months to years to research and create medicines or vaccines, time barriers that often result in loss of life. This program gives us an opportunity to very rapidly provide ways to prevent infection and extend survival until long-term solutions are available."
Marasco will direct an international team of leading scientists and businesses engaged in the study of pathogen detection, screening, and therapeutic formulation and manufacturing. The team will pursue two parallel paths toward the program goals: First, to rapidly select broadly neutralizing phage antibodies for direct use as therapeutics for microbial infection; and Second, to investigate selective anti-idiotypic stimulation of B-cell precursors leading to secretion of antibodies with broad-spectrum, natural, anti-microbial activity.
In addition to Dana-Farber, the other institutions and organizations that comprise the research team are Columbia University, New York; Lovelace Respiratory Research Institute, Albuquerque, N.M., sanofi pasteur VaxDesign Campus, Orlando, Fla., Virapur, San Diego; University of Alberta, Canada; and Thomas Jefferson University, Philadelphia. Latham BioPharm Group, Maynard, Mass., is the systems integrator for the 13-month project.
Dana-Farber Cancer Institute (www.dana-farber.org) is a principal teaching affiliate of the Harvard Medical School and is among the leading cancer research and care centers in the United States. It is a founding member of the Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center (DF/HCC), designated a comprehensive cancer center by the National Cancer Institute. It provides adult cancer care with Brigham and Women's Hospital as Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women's Cancer Center and it provides pediatric care with Children's Hospital Boston as Dana-Farber/Children's Hospital Cancer Center. Dana-Farber is the top ranked cancer center in New England, according to U.S. News & World Report, and one of the largest recipients among independent hospitals of National Cancer Institute and National Institutes of Health grant funding.