At the Ebola Innovation Summit, a recent event held in a chilly warehouse-like space in San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts, there were many important people concerned about the future of global health. Employees of the World Health Organization mused about the logistical failings of the Ebola epidemic’s response. Honorable Madina Rahman, the Deputy Minister of Health and Sanitation in Sierra Leone, talked about the one hospital where most Ebola patients survived. Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Paul Allen discussed the gaps in data collection and emergency infrastructure.
Then a more unexpected figure took the stage. Colonel Matthew Hepburn, a DARPA program manager outfitted in full military dress, began talking about how the Department of Defense wants to be “part of the team” addressing future epidemics. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency–the agency best known in recent years for creating military robots, human exoskeletons, and thought-controlled prosthetic arms (designed to help members of the military return to duty after losing a limb, natch)–wants to help.
The U.S. did deploy nearly 3,000 troops to West Africa to help fight the raging epidemic at the end of last year. They built clinics and helped train communities on how to respond and are now starting to come home. But what does Ebola research, a disease that is unlikely to get a strong foothold in the U.S, have to do with national defense?
According to Hepburn, the former director of medical preparedness for the White House National Security Staff, it’s incredibly relevant. “What is national security? It’s keeping people safe so they are not harmed. Ebola is part of national security,” he said.
DARPA has a long history of working on biomedical and infectious disease innovations, scattered across its different offices. About a year ago, the agency launched a dedicated Biological Technologies Office. The office’s mission goes beyond infectious diseases, however. Here’s the description from DARPA’s website:
BTO seeks to establish and invest in new communities of scientific interest at the intersection of traditional and emerging disciplines. Its investment portfolio goes far beyond life sciences applications in medicine to include areas of research such as human-machine interfaces, microbes as production platforms, and deep exploration of the impact of evolving ecologies and environments on U.S. readiness and capabilities. BTO’s programs operate across a wide range of scales, from individual cells to complex biological systems including mammalian and non-mammalian organisms and the macro- and micro-environments in which they operate.
Among the “active programs” listed on the website: battlefield medicine, surviving blood loss, and revolutionizing prosthetics.
Hepburn’s focus is on disease forecasting and diagnostics, as he explained to me after the conference. Instead of focusing solely on Ebola, Hepburn and his team are looking for ideas that could be used for multiple diseases–platforms, in other words. “We want to address whatever that future threat is, whatever it becomes,” he says.
Hepburn is particularly interested in what’s called host-based diagnostics, looking at a person’s response to an infection to predict what might happen to them. “The magic of host-based responses is that it can be used more broadly to say, ‘You are having a response to a respiratory virus–we know that you’re having a response to the virus,'” he says. “Host-based responses can give you a prognosis. If we see a certain response, we can say, ‘You are the 10% that gets [a complication of] pneumonia.” In the case of Ebola, which has an incubation period of a week or two, host-based diagnostics could identify infected people before they get sick, making them less likely to spread the virus to others.
Point of care diagnostic tests that can look for multiple infectious diseases are also of interest to DARPA. “That type of capability is very representative of this theme of platforms,” says Hepburn.
Like so many government agencies, DARPA is also into public challenges. The latest, from the BTO, is theDARPA Forecasting Chikungunya Challenge, which asks entrants to come up with a way to predict the spread of the Chikungunya virus–a nasty infection that’s often accompanied by crippling joint pain. Chikungunya is quickly spreading throughout the Caribbean and the Americas, making the challenge a priority. Another challenge, not yet launched, will look at people who are resilient to infections, trying to figure out what their commonalities are.
“Diagnostics are just as important as treatment,” he says.