WASHINGTON (Sept. 10, 2021) – The George Washington University has been awarded a $3.6 million contract to genetically modify commensal organisms to produce antidotes for harmful biological and chemical agents, such as anthrax, Ebola, and even COVID-19.
This project is part of a five-year $16.4 million contract awarded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and Naval Information Warfare Center Pacific to Charles River Analytics, which subcontracted the GW team, and involves seven other institutions. Dedicated to finding ways to help protect warfighters and first responders from biological and chemical threats, the research project has two focus areas: The first technical area (being addressed by other researchers) will focus on creating a fabric that provides a first line of defense to an individual, while the second technical area, co-led by GW, will focus on developing a skin-applied treatment for prophylaxis against exposure to rapidly neutralize agents and which is quickly reconfigurable to address new threats.
“We are genetically modifying the organisms responsible for the neglected tropical disease, schistosomiasis, to instead serve as a platform for delivering antibodies to frontline personnel who risk exposure to biological pathogens or harmful chemicals,” Paul Brindley, PhD, professor of microbiology, immunology, and tropical medicine at the GW School of Medicine and Health Sciences and lead investigator on the project at GW, said. “Our goal is to create an anti-threat solution that can be activated in 10 minutes or less and can be quickly adapted for new threats.”
Brindley and his lab colleagues at GW have expertise in using CRISPR/Cas9 to limit the impact of schistosomiasis and liver fluke infection. Because the agents that cause these diseases are adept at entering and circulating in the human body, they represent a potentially promising delivery vehicle for carrying antibody genes into the body as well. Brindley will use CRISPR/Cas9 to plug genetic information into the DNA of male organisms. As the organisms cycle through their life, the team aims to manipulate the experimentally gene-edited segment of genetic material, or transgene, to perform programmed tasks, such as turning on and off and releasing an anti-pathogen antibody into the body. Brindley and his research team will work in concert with military labs to test against real threats.
The first phase of the contract is 24 months. If successful, additional funding will be received to progress to phase two (also 24 months) and then phase three (12 months). In addition to Charles River Analytics and GW, several other institutions are involved in this contract.
Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the DARPA or NIWC Pacific.