Al Gore didn’t invent the Internet. It was the Pentagon’s biotech strike force, DARPA, whose research gave rise to such things as the Internet, GPS monitoring, and stealth aircraft.
DARPA stands for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Their mission isn’t to do ordinary science, it’s to forge quantum leaps in technology. For example, technology to immediately translate languages for online and in-person communications; the Spiderman project to enable soldiers to walk up walls; robotic arms that can be controlled by a person’s mind; prosthetic hands that can “feel” things, and so on. In other words, their job is to make science fiction real.
The DARPA project that interests us is disease detection: the development of pathogen identification technology that tells you immediately whether you’re dealing with a bacteria or a virus, and which one.
The way we figure that out now doesn’t cut it. We still use the Louis Pasteur-era ‘culture’ method: you take a sample from the affected area and send it to the lab, they look at it under a microscope and send you a report. That can take several days to a week assuming you’re near a hospital. But if you’re in a remote area, an underdeveloped country, a war zone, and so on, it’ll take longer and sometimes it can’t even be done. And that’s all a bad bug needs to do you irreversible harm.
That’s why DARPA is funding research to make pathogen detection as simple as a pregnancy test. One effort underway is the development of a small, light-weight paper-based device without complex instrumentation. The test is activated once exposed to a nasal swab, and in less than an hour, will change color to indicate the presence of different target diseases. They’re after the usual suspects like the flu, the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome or MERS, malaria, dengue fever, sexually transmitted diseases, and Ebola.
However, the first pathogen researchers will target is methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA. That’s because MRSA is especially problematic in institutional settings like hospitals, military bases, and prisons; or in refugee camps or crowded urban settings where people generally live in close quarters (MRSA is spread by contact). So fast diagnosis is key because MRSA infections can worsen rapidly, and in less than a week, take hold in human tissue and become very difficult to treat or even untreatable: In the U.S. alone MRSA causes more than 11,000 deaths a year (linked report, p.77).
Remember, too, the dictum of the Director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Thomas Frieden, MD, who said that because of rapid global travel of people and goods “a disease outbreak anywhere is a risk everywhere.” Last year’s Ebola outbreak is an example of this, and it’s also an example of the need for rapid diagnostics: the first U.S. Ebola patient who presented himself at the Dallas hospital with flu-like symptoms was sent home with antibiotics – which fight bacterial-based diseases only. Ebola, however, is a virus thus unresponsive to antibiotics. Had there been rapid diagnostics available he wouldn’t have been turned away to wander the streets of Dallas for days, possibly infecting others, before he returned to the hospital in much worse shape and finally admitted.
Here’s one of the DARPA-funded disease detectives discussing their groundbreaking work: