DARPA’s Biotech Chief Says 2017 Will “Blow Our Minds”

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Monday, Jan 9, 2017

The Pentagon’s research and development division, DARPA—the creative force behind the internet and GPS—retooled itself three years ago to create a new office dedicated to unraveling biology’s engineering secrets. The new Biological Technologies Office (BTO) has a mission to “harness the power of biological systems” and design new defense technology.

Over the past year, with a budget of about $296 million, it has been exploring challenges including memory improvement, human–machine symbiosis and speeding up disease detection and response.

DARPA, or the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is hoping for some big returns. The director of its BTO, neuroprosthetic researcher Justin Sanchez, recently spoke with Scientific American about what to expect from his office in 2017, including work on neural implants to aid healthy people in their everyday lives and other advances that he says will “change the game” in medicine.

[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]

Before your office was created in April 2014, DARPA had already worked on some biological projects—including research on combatting antibiotic resistance and mental health interventions. What’s changed with the creation of your office?

We had been doing biological work—at the interface of biology and engineering—for many years, but it was scattered throughout the offices. With our office there was a recognition that biological technologies were going to play such a crucial role in not only shaping where our country was going, but the threats coming to our country, and we needed a focused comprehensive effort going forward.

I’m particularly intrigued by BTO’s hope to develop programmable microbes to produce needed medications on the fly—an effort to sidestep concerns about stockpiling the right drugs or worrying about complex transport logistics. That sounds amazing. Where is that work now?

That’s a program called “Living Foundries”—like a foundry where we would build something that’s alive. Traditionally we use chemistry to make new compounds or new drugs. But recently we’ve realized that microbes like yeast and bacteria can also produce compounds, and we can program them to make those compounds by first understanding the chemical pathways they use. Take yeast. Yeast uses sugar for a variety of pathways to produce alcohols. If you reprogram those pathways, however, you could potentially have yeast build a variety of different compounds that they weren’t initially designed to make and we would still use the same feedstocks—like sugar.
Our teams design the genetic codes that would be needed to reprogram the yeast. That is such a different idea about how to revolutionize the way we build compounds. That program set out to produce 1,000 new molecules throughout the duration of the program [which has three years left], and the teams are well on their way. I believe they have produced close to 100 new compounds already using these new pathways in yeast. It’s about thinking about biology and marrying it with engineering tools, and then using those two components to design something.

So you are in the early days of building compounds to spec?

Yes. They are on milligram quantities of these new compounds, but ultimately, throughout the course of the program, they are scaling up to kilograms.

If we can design these entirely different foundries for building these compounds, we think it could revolutionize how we think about drug development and also nonmedical approaches, because this is a platform technology. Depending on what compound you are interested in—maybe some for medical uses or some that are for building a new material, like something more robust than the elements—there are lots of possibilities.

How will the new president-elect and Republican-dominated Congress affect your work?