A U.S. military research program that seeks a new way to boost a body’s immunity to viruses could change how governments and militaries prepare for pandemics — and might even arrive soon enough to help with the COVID-19 outbreak.
DARPA’s Pandemic Prevention Platform isn’t looking to create a vaccine, which can take years to produce and weeks to take effect in the body. Rather, the goal is to identify the specific monoclonal antibodies that the body naturally produces when it encounters a virus, and then trick the body into producing the one that guards against a specific illness. That could serve as a temporary, months-long shield that can protect the individual from the pathogen until a vaccine can be brought online.
But these antibodies “take a long time to find and discover. There’s a long pipeline in the biomedical world to identify and test them and really understand these antibodies,” said Dr. Amy Jenkins, who manages the program at DARPA.
One of the goals of the program is to accelerate the discovery process.
“We have really trimmed that timeline down from what is usually multiyear timeline to just being a several week timeline,” Jenkins said on Monday.
It’s a feat they’ve achieved through investments in microfluidics, the manipulation of liquids at the sub-millimeter range; nanofabrication, the fabrication of objects less than a billionth of a meter in size; and new approaches to gene sequencing.
Jenkins described it this way: “We are able to take a patient that has recovered from this pathogen, for example, and we are able to sequence many of of their B cells. So those cells that make those antibodies that help protect you against those pathogens? We are now able to sequence all of those because of next-generation sequencing approaches.”