$16 million contract seeks protection against chemical & biological threats

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) awarded a contract to Charles River Analytics, a to develop lightweight materials and adaptable, tissue-protective countermeasures to provide on-demand, broad spectrum, and rapid long-term protection.

The task is conducting ground-breaking research at the forefront of AI, robotics, and human-centered computing, to lead a team of research organizations seeking to develop a novel biosystem solution to protect warfighters from chemical and biological threats.

The five-year, $16 million contract will focus on neutralizing threats at vulnerable internal tissue barriers, including skin, airway, and ocular barriers, using a configurable biological countermeasure.

Charles River Analytics will lead a team of partners as they collaborate on DARPA’s Personalized Protective Biosystem (PPB) program.

PPB aims to develop technology that reduces the need for burdensome protective equipment while increasing individual protection against biological attacks. The program will explore the use of new transgenic commensal organisms—specifically hookworms and schistosomes—to secrete therapeutics specifically targeting chemical and biological threats, including neurotoxins (such as organophosphates) and microbial pathogens.

“These organisms already live naturally in humans in areas where they are endemic. They have sophisticated secretory systems that can be manipulated to provide immunotherapies to protect our women and men on the battlefield,” said Dr. Bethany Bracken, Principal Scientist at Charles River Analytics and lead of the effort. “Our goal is to insert a genetic sequence that provides the managed protection that the human body needs to counter these biological threats.”

“This award is a milestone for Charles River; it’s our first with DARPA’s Biological Technologies Office,” added Karen Harper, President at Charles River Analytics. “It is a credit to the breadth of our research staff that we’ve been entrusted by DARPA to lead programs across all six of their renowned technology offices.”

The effort includes a team of subcontractors including Baylor College of Medicine; George Washington University; James Cook University; Leiden University Medical Center; University of California, Irvine; and Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

“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,” said Paul Brindley, PhD, professor of microbiology, immunology, and tropical medicine at the George Washington University School of Medicine. “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.”

“We have fascinating work ahead, which could bring tremendous protective measures first to our warfighters and eventually to the medical community overall,” said Rich Wronski, Program Manager for the PPB effort and Vice President and Principal Scientist at the company. “Our team spans four countries and 14 time zones to include the world’s foremost experts on hookworms and schistosomes. We are always enthusiastic about this kind of powerful, close collaboration, and we are energized by what we can accomplish together.”

“PPB aims to address PPE limitations, including threat-specific vulnerabilities, thermal/logistical burdens, and potential exposure risks,” noted Eric Van Gieson, PPB program manager. “The capability to provide unburdened CB protection will be invaluable in maximizing time on target, providing operational flexibility, extending mission duration, and enabling operations in austere environments, regardless of the threat.”

The five-year program is divided into two technical areas (TAs). TA1 technologies aim to prevent external contact between the threat and the body, providing 100% survival against more than 10 CB agents with smart, lightweight materials. TA2 technologies will neutralize threats at vulnerable internal tissue barriers (i.e. skin, airway, ocular) using a configurable countermeasure.

The PPB program team is collaborating with government and industry stakeholders – including the Joint Program Executive Office for Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Defense (JPEO-CBRND), Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), U.S. Center for Disease Control /National Personal Protective Technology Laboratory (NPPTL), and World Health Organization International (WHO) – to serve as potential transition partners.

“Successful PPB technologies have the potential to revolutionize how the military and public health communities perform in unpredictable threat environments, while also offering prophylactic and therapeutic solutions to known and emerging infectious diseases,” added Van Gieson.

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