Colonel Dan Wattendorf is a program manager in DARPA's Defense Sciences Office. His goal: To dramatically suppress Ebola, and infectious diseases like it, with a new, unconventional vaccine. And according to Wattendorf, the biggest hurdles he faces in accomplishing this mission "aren't scientific, but institutional."
Over at Fusion, Alexis Madrigal reports in depth on DARPA's foray into DNA vaccines. A highly promising inoculation technique more than two decades in the making (albeit still unproven in human clinical trials), DNA vaccines are like traditional vaccines in that they trigger a protective immune response in the body. Unlike standard vaccines, however, which prompt the body to concoct antibodies according to blueprints of its own design, DNA vaccines supply the body with assembly instructions right up front, in the form of genetic code. These genes can carry instructions for a variety of adjuvants (a substance that augments a vaccine's effectiveness), but DARPA – blue-sky research arm that it is – wants to extend the technology to the extremes of its biological capabilities. For Wattendorf and his colleagues at DARPA, that means injecting DNA vaccine recipients with "the [genetic] code for the antibody itself," Madrigal explains, "which would allow the body to do less immunological guesswork before starting to fight the infection."
Madrigal speaks to a few experts in vaccines and antibody engineering who call Wattendorf's ideas "highly promising," "elegant," and "interesting " – but the project is not without its critics. "To someone 'skilled in the arts,' most of [Wattendorf's] 'new' ideas occurred to many of us long ago," Alan Schmaljohn, a virologist at the University of Maryland and seasoned expert in the field of emerging viruses, told Madrigal. "There is often novelty in the newest technical approaches, and (fueling an aging scientist's skepticism) even more often there are obligatory claims of novelty (to secure funding and notoriety)."
But in a presentation delivered last month at the DARPA-sponsored conference Biology is Technology, Wattendorf was prepared to confront each of Schmaljohn's specific criticisms – which you can read over at Fusion – one by one. In a one-on-one interview with Madrigal, he concedes that the technical challenges his team faces "are formidable." But remember, Wattendorf says, this is DARPA we're talking about:
Wattendorf believes his program can succeed because of the very structure of how DARPA works. The key hurdles, Wattendorf argues, aren't scientific, but institutional. And DARPA can jump over and around them. For the overall DNA vaccine program to work, it must combine many disciplines and subfields in new ways. As Wattendorf described his work to me, he talked about how the people who work on monoclonal antibodies don't get together with the people who work on anti-infectives who don't get together with the vaccine people who don't get together with the Ebola specialists. Lots of interesting technologies don't get applied outside their local domains. And that's why DARPA could play a fascinating role, by serving as a central magnet that draws all of these entities together on single projects. The key skill for preventing diseases, according to Wattendorf's theory, isn't brilliant flashes of House-like biological insight, but practical institutional political knowledge. (Well, that, and access to the government's deep pockets.)
With the Ebola outbreak, Wattendorf's team has been granted a major opportunity to deliver on its ambitious aims: When four of America's Ebola patients were treated at Emory University Hospital's Serious Communicable Diseases Unit, Wattendorf's program selected 20 of the patients' antibodies on which to perform further research. "Your body might end up producing one of these exact same antibodies some day in the future," says Madrigal, "after a doctor injects you with the genetic instructions for making them."
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