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Medicine The Military Science

DARPA Requests Replacement To Antibiotics 193

Posted by samzenpus
from the turning-on-the-autodoc dept.
eldavojohn writes "In the grand scheme of things, antibiotics are a very temporary solution to aid humans in combating bacteria. Bacterial resistance to said antibiotics is an increasing fear and DARPA's 'Rapidly Adaptable Nanotherapeutics' solicitation reveals they're interested in a more permanent solution as modifying the genes of harmless bacteria can result in powerful bioweapons. Like siRNA, DARPA is hoping for more nanomolecules that can specifically target cells and deliver medicine to them anywhere in the body. Most amazing about this proposal is that it's aimed at small businesses and hopes to turn a process that takes decades to study a new antibiotic into a few weeks to manufacture nanomedicine to specifically target bacteria."
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DARPA Requests Replacement To Antibiotics

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  • by Scareduck (177470) on Monday November 21, 2011 @11:58AM (#38124724) Homepage Journal

    The "aimed at small businesses" part is almost certainly hooey, and is being done for political reasons.

    • by Sockatume (732728)

      You're suggesting I couldn't get a small business loan to set up an anti-biowarfare laboratory?

    • by sconeu (64226) on Monday November 21, 2011 @12:39PM (#38125234) Homepage Journal

      It's probably not hooey.

      DARPA tends to put blue-sky stuff like this into SBIR [osd.mil] (Small Business Innovation Research). You'd be amazed at what comes out of these grants.

      Disclaimer: In a previous job, I worked for a company that did work under SBIR.

    • by AdrianKemp (1988748) on Monday November 21, 2011 @12:57PM (#38125446)

      As mentioned above, they really do want small businesses.

      The big companies might have some extra money to toss at a problem, but they won't without good chances for return.

      In this case "small businesses" translates roughly to "those crazy enough to risk economic ruin when they fail".

      *note* I realize this post sounds a little negative, that is not the intent. I love DARPA and out of the grants they award has come some truly stunning stuff.

    • by tmosley (996283)
      Small businesses are the only ones left doing actual innovative R&D. The MBAs slashed all funding for R&D at most of the big firms. Now they just wait around for a small company to come up with a good technology/product, then sweep in and buy them up.
      • Oddly enough, as long as someone is doing innovative R&D, this isn't necessarily a bad thing. In large organizations, promising R&D is often killed because of the "needing to be all things to all people" syndrome or, due to it being disruptive technology, because it has a chance to displace existing (and profitable) products. And, frankly, the purchase of a company whose innovative R&D shows promise is often a more certain payoff than trying to grow that business. Finally, most large organizatio

      • That and employees are no longer valued they're viewed as an expense. Most of these small businesses are developing ideas from ex-employees who weren't valued adequately and have started a new company to develop their idea.

        Companies like Apple spend millions re-buying what probably could have been kept in house if the employees had been given a fat raise and recognition.

        Then again there is such a lack of vision and creativity in management today I don't really trust most companies to recognize their valua

    • Well the "aimed at" part might actually produce a bunch of hooey considering that some researchers somehow figured out that duck spoof has antibiotic properties [royalsocie...ishing.org]. And if that makes you squeamish at the thought, the Scandinavians have figured out that human spoof does too [informahealthcare.com]! Now to convince your girlfriend/wife that you are really trying to help her when she gets strep throat.
  • nanomolecules that can specifically target cells and deliver medicine to them anywhere in the body

    Instead of delivering medicine, why not make them carry some sort of nano weapon to destroy the target cells?

    • by Anonymous Coward on Monday November 21, 2011 @12:11PM (#38124890)

      Two reasons, both based on the assumption that delivering medicine to them is trickier than destroying them.

      First, if you can achieve the goal of deliving medicine to target cells, then destroying them should be trivial, so you've discovered a way to do both.

      Second, it sets your sights higher. If your goal is to find a way to deliver medicine to target cells but you miss the mark and the best you can do is destroy them, you've still accomplished something great (as in a cure for cancer). However, if your goal is to figure out a way to destroy target cells and you fail, you accomplished far less.

      • But delivering medicines still leaves the possibility of the bacteria developing resistance open
        • by tmosley (996283) on Monday November 21, 2011 @01:09PM (#38125586)
          Not if done properly.

          My own company has developed a small catalyst that can be covalently bound to a targeting molecule. When released into the bloodstream, the catalyst gathers around the targeted cells and catalyzes the production of superoxide, which directly oxidizes the cell membrane. If you target virulence factors, or certain vital proteins in the membrane, there is no method by which they can develop immunity. Either they evolve to no longer have virulence factors (and are thus no longer a problem), or they have to change their entire membrane structure to an as yet unseen one that resists oxidative damage while still allowing water in, which would make it not only a new species, but a new kingdom.
        • by Daetrin (576516)
          To elaborate on what the other responder said, antibiotics work because we've discovered chemicals which don't damage human cells but attack specific weaknesses particular to the bacteria we want to kill. That way we can ingest high doses that will affect the bacteria without damaging ourselves.

          However because those antibiotics depend on difference in the cell structure between human cells and the bacteria cells the bacteria can effectively evolve to be more like human cells in that regard (in general if
      • by shaitand (626655)

        If only we could develop a device that targets the cells and delivers peroxide to destroy them... somehow it sounds familiar.

    • by residieu (577863)
      That's probably the ultimate plan. It probably gets around those pesky rules against biological and chemical weapons.
    • by mcgrew (92797) *

      The medicine is a nenoweapon -- against the infected cells.

  • The Future (Score:5, Funny)

    by masternerdguy (2468142) on Monday November 21, 2011 @12:04PM (#38124806)
    DARPA + Nanites = A Better World. Only the USA could responsibly use such a technology for the betterment of all mankind.
    • by hedwards (940851)

      Except this is really pointless, such a cure already exists and has been in development for years. If you eat beef in the US there's a good chance you've already consumed bacteriophages. One of the happy consequences of the break up of the USSR was that the Georgian government had massive biological weapons labs with nothing to do with them, they ultimately were used for research.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bacteriophage [wikipedia.org]

      The results so far have been quite impressive.

      • The results so far have been quite impressive.

        Really? For all the jumping up and down from the bacteriophage is great community, I've yet to see a commercial product or system.

        Got any examples?

        • by tmosley (996283)
          They exist, but they are only used in the clinic in Russia and nearby nations, so far as I know. A friend of mine works at a phage research company, and is working on FDA approval for use of the system in the USA. The problem is that phage is an undefined form of medicine, as it is evolved to work against a given infection on the fly. The FDA doesn't like that. They want defined medicines, and seem to be loathe to approve something as disorganized and effective as phage therapy.
          • by hedwards (940851)

            Correct, the problem presently is that if you're going to use it as medicine in the US, you would have to go through trials for each and every strain that the doctors wanted to use. Now that's normally a reasonable way to approach things, however these are rapidly evolving and you're not going to find a strain that kills the desired bacteria, but hurts the patient.

        • Re:The Future (Score:4, Interesting)

          by The Askylist (2488908) on Monday November 21, 2011 @02:27PM (#38126484)
          Richard Feynman took them seriously enough to research them when he took a short sabbatical from physics - here [nih.gov] is a paper he co-wrote at CalTech in 1961.

          .

          If it was good enough for Feynman, it's good enough for me.

          And what is a phage but a biological nanomachine dedicated to killing bacteria, anyway?

        • by hedwards (940851)

          Doing my undergrad I would daily walk past some fairly macabre before and after photos of the treatments. A blackened foot which normally would have been removed and an after photo of the same foot that had been treated. The process was rather simple, cut the foot wide open and slather the correct strain of phage allowing for the drainage after the fact.
          http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2095089/ [nih.gov]
          http://blogs.evergreen.edu/phage/ [evergreen.edu]

    • by ByOhTek (1181381)

      This is a technology I'd be happier if nobody had.

      However, that obviously isn't going to happen....

    • MAXIMUM IMMUNITY

  • by wjcofkc (964165) on Monday November 21, 2011 @12:08PM (#38124852)
    It is massively unfortunate that antibiotics have fallen due to misuse. By all means the *should* be viable for decades to come, but that has been ruined by ignorance. To this day I know people who despite being aware of the issue from the news, doctors, and long lectures by me, discontinue their course before it's done and then hoard those antibiotics to take when they have a cold or the flu. Yet they have been informed thoroughly as to why this is bad and why antibiotics don't even try viri.

    This is not a matter of educating the public. The public has been educated yet they ignore it. I have never understood where this profound ignorance comes from. This is a major hot button for me.

    Past all that, if any organization can formulate something new and better I suppose that would be DARPA.
    • by wisnoskij (1206448) on Monday November 21, 2011 @12:18PM (#38124968) Homepage

      I far bigger issue then singular humans mistaking antibiotics is the universal use by the farming industry on animals.

    • Would have made little difference in the long run. If you use antibiotics, you will get resistant organisms. Same thing with siRNA, bacteriophages or whatnot.

      It's called evolutionary pressure. It it doesn't much care about you....

      • by wjcofkc (964165)
        I totally agree with your statement. The unfortunate thing about it is that the long run has been reduced to a sprint through abuse compared to the marathon we should have had. I realize how long antibiotics have been in use, but they should have lasted longer.
      • If you use antibiotics, you will get resistant organisms. Same thing with siRNA, bacteriophages or whatnot

        Only if your antibiotic or replacement only kills most of the bacteria. We haven't seen bacteria become resistant to neat chlorine, for example. Evolution isn't magic.

        • Even if whatever is only killing 'most' of the bacteria it's not guaranteed or even necessarily possible for said organism to evolve a mechanism to survive.

          Agreed, evolution isn't magic.

      • by tmosley (996283)
        You do realize that phage co-evolves with bacteria, and as such bacteria never gain immunity to them, right?

        It's like saying that Little Johnny got a cold, so now he is immune to all viruses.

        Further, current antibiotics lead to resistance only because they act as poisons, and must get into the cell, and stick around long enough to do their damage. They can be pumped out. If you have a material that attacks the membrane, then you can't breed resistance. Not without a sudden dramatic leap to a new ty
      • by Nadaka (224565)

        Some things do not care about evolutionary pressure.

        Humanity can not evolve a biological defense against a bullet to the brain.

        A cell can not evolve a biological defense against having its cell wall shredded by an oxidizing agent.

        • by 9jack9 (607686)

          Humanity can not evolve a biological defense against a bullet to the brain.

          Oh, yeah?

          I guess you've never heard of Wolverine, then. Hello: mutant! Mutant = EVOLUTION.

          "Among the more extreme depictions of Wolverine's healing factor include fully healing after being caught near the center of an atomic explosion." ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wolverine_(comics) [wikipedia.org] )

          So, bullet to the brain, no problem.

    • It is massively unfortunate that antibiotics have fallen due to misuse. By all means the *should* be viable for decades to come ...

      Decades? When you look at the power of evolution over time -- and I mean time as in evolutionary time -- it is simply amazing and a "solution" like antibiotics is no more than a very brief band-aid. I'm not in the medical fields but as the population of humans on this planet skyrockets, we become more and more vulnerable to just being massive petri-dishes waiting for that one antibacterial resistant strain. From the definition of antibiotics [wikipedia.org]:

      The term antibiotic was coined by Selman Waksman in 1942 to describe any substance produced by a microorganism that is antagonistic to the growth of other microorganisms in high dilution.

      In the evolutionary sense, these antibiotics are merely one mor

    • by jc42 (318812)

      It is massively unfortunate that antibiotics have fallen due to misuse. By all means the *should* be viable for decades to come, but that has been ruined by ignorance. ... This is not a matter of educating the public. The public has been educated yet they ignore it. I have never understood where this profound ignorance comes from. This is a major hot button for me.

      Well, I don't know where in the world you may live, but here in the US, it's fairly clear what has happened. The religious crowd has campaigned long and hard against "evolution", and they have pretty much succeeded in eliminating the word and the concept from our educations system. Thus, if you pay attention to news stories about drug resistance, it is always something that micro-organisms develop or acquire; it is hardly ever something that they evolve. The media does this partly out of fear of religio

  • by guises (2423402) on Monday November 21, 2011 @12:17PM (#38124940)
    "antibiotics are a very temporary solution to aid humans in combating bacteria"

    The problem is overuse - factory farming is unsustainable for this reason alone, but putting an end to high density meat production and doing a better job with limiting antibiotic use among humans would not only stop the development of antibiotic resistance, it would reverse the process. Evolution cuts both ways, bacteria may evolve a resistance to antibiotics but they give something up in the process. If you remove the stimulus then, given time, the process will reverse.

    Of course, ending factory farming would mean more expensive meat (i.e. big government nanny-state), but more importantly would cut into the profits of a few certain companies. So DARPA comes up with this instead.
    • Oh stop. Yes, we shouldn't feed tetracycline to chickens (or corn to cows for that matter). No, it doesn't change things. Neither will nanoThis or nanoThat - you are just putting pressure on the organism to 'come up' with workarounds.

      The big problem with nanoThis and nanoThat will be differentiating 'good' from 'bad'. People have been trying targeted molecules of many sorts (for cancer, mostly) for decades with little success. Past failures, of course, do not argue against future success but it's not l

    • Evolution cuts both ways, bacteria may evolve a resistance to antibiotics but they give something up in the process. If you remove the stimulus then, given time, the process will reverse.

      Not exactly. The bacteria evolved their resistance genes under extremely intense selection pressures. Novel antibiotics are the hydrogen bombs of the microbiology world. The bacteria survived in a given person because there are quintillions of them, reproducing dozens of times per day. Their natural mutation rate brute forced a genetic solution to the problem.

      However, genetic drift (the process by which genes could disappear at the population or species level when they're not under any selection pressur

    • Of course, ending factory farming would mean more expensive meat (i.e. big government nanny-state), but more importantly would cut into the profits of a few certain companies.

      Only if you buy meat at the grocery store in meal sized quantities for a family of 4. My dad and I split 1/4 of a cow and 1/4 of a bison each year as one of my dad's friends raises cattle (10 to 12 on 40 acres) and one of my step-mom's friends raises bison (5 on 40 acres). This year the beef cost $3.41 a pound and the bison was $3.74 a pound which I believe is still cheaper than even the worst ground beef (I saw some 75% lean ground beef a while ago that was almost $4 a pound) but that price includes ground

  • by Zdzicho00 (912806) on Monday November 21, 2011 @12:19PM (#38124982)

    Bacteriophages are being used to cure such infections in one of polish hospitals. For example MRSA is being cured in 80% of cases.
    Therapy is safe and cheap:
    http://www.aite.wroclaw.pl/phages/phages.html [wroclaw.pl]

    Why you are not going to see such treatments in your country?? Phages are not patentable, so no way to earn hard cash here.

    • The headline immediately brought phages to my mind, also. We do some stupid things in the USA.
    • Of course, some bacteriophages actually produce virulence factors when they infect bacteria (e.g. Diptheria: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diptheria#Mechanism [wikipedia.org])

      If there is one thing the FSM has taught us humans is that beer volcanoes are awesome. If there are two things the FSM has taught us, it is that nature finds a way. Or maybe that was Jurassic Park. Hmmm...

    • by Guppy (12314)

      Well, a few things to keep in mind. One is that phages are very specific to their hosts (like a antibiotic with a super-narrow spectrum of activity), and two similar strains of bacteria can have very different phage susceptibility profiles. In an epidemic (such as a Cholera outbreak), you are likely facing all one strain, but for community infections you will need to a large library of phages, which requires considerable expertise to maintain and use. On the plus side, you can avoid collateral damage to

    • by Stickerboy (61554) on Monday November 21, 2011 @07:53PM (#38130670) Homepage

      Bacteriophages are being used to cure such infections in one of polish hospitals. For example MRSA is being cured in 80% of cases.
      Therapy is safe and cheap:
      http://www.aite.wroclaw.pl/phages/phages.html [wroclaw.pl]

      Why you are not going to see such treatments in your country?? Phages are not patentable, so no way to earn hard cash here.

      This is ridiculous. MRSA is curable in 100% of cases in the United States right now using current antibiotics and/or surgery (to remove a source of infection that drugs can't penetrate). The question is not whether or not medical science can kill the infection, the question is whether the patient is healthy enough to recover from the damage already wrought by the infection in the first place by the time they're treated. Anyone who has actually worked in an intensive care unit, instead of armchair doctoring, can attest to this.

      Example: had a nursing home patient admitted a year ago for pneumonia. Causative organism was Pseudomonas aeruginosa. Fairly resistant, treated with doripenem and tobramycin. Killed the Pseudomonas with a standard 14 day course of treatment (repeat washings and cultures: negative), but much of her left lung was already chewed up into a necrotic mush. Bronchopleural fistulas from the damage required chest tubes and chronic ventilation through a tracheostomy. Eventually taken to surgery for a pneumonectomy. Survived the surgery, but gradually worsened in her general health and never could be weaned from the ventilator until finally her family withdrew care.

      Phages may well have a good clinical benefit, and may eventually take a prominent place as another weapon in the healthcare arsenal against infection, but until I see the randomized controlled trials showing their superiority (or even noninferiority with benefits in other areas) vs standard antibiotics, I could care less. Put up or shut up....

  • by RobinEggs (1453925) on Monday November 21, 2011 @12:25PM (#38125062)

    In the grand scheme of things, antibiotics are a very temporary solution to aid humans in combating bacteria. Bacterial resistance to said antibiotics is an increasing fear

    Some bacteria replicate every 20 minutes. That's 72 opportunities a day for them to catch onto at least the beginnings of a method to bypass an antibiotic. And mutations are to increasing environmental survivability as brute force cracking is to opening a file with 2056-bit XYZ+ encryption. It'll work eventually, but 99.99999% of the time (literally) you and your entire family tree are long dead before anything significant happens.

    Good thing there are at least 100 quadrillion bacterial cells inside every human body, for a grand total of a fucking buttload of bacterial family trees to carry on the crack. Not to mention the uncountable number outside of humans, mutating and reproducing in thousands of different environments but all theoretically capable of suddenly mutating that one last step that allows them to survive in a human body while completely bypassing the human immune system and antibiotics almost entirely.

    Anyone who, in the last 25 years, ever thought antibiotics were a persistent defense system against bacteria was hopelessly optimistic and misinformed about microbiology.

    Overall, people just need to calm the hell down. I'm not saying we stop treating disease or cease using antibiotics or saying any other defeatist, fatalist nonsense. I'm just saying we exist at the pleasure of the bacteria, prions, and viruses that outnumber other terrestrial life by a factor of trillions. It's just one of those things that could kill us at any second but probably won't, like asteroid strikes and nuclear war. The sooner Westerners have their collective "How I learned to stop worrying and love bacteria" moment, the better. We can move on to things we can actually can full control.

    • by hkfczrqj (671146)

      Some bacteria replicate every 20 minutes. That's 72 opportunities a day for them to catch onto at least the beginnings of a method to bypass an antibiotic. And mutations are to increasing environmental survivability as brute force cracking is to opening a file with 2056-bit XYZ+ encryption. It'll work eventually, but 99.99999% of the time (literally) you and your entire family tree are long dead before anything significant happens.

      You are underestimating the mutation rate of bacteria, as vertical inheritance is not the only mechanism for mutations. Look up Horizontal (or Lateral) Gene Transfer. Living cells can acquire genes from other cells. In bacteria, it was measured at one successful transfer per generation (in E. Coli). Genes can be acquired from environment, through plasmids, injected by viruses, recombined with other bacteria (a.k.a. bacterial sex), etc. Transfer doesn't have to be from the same species (whatever definition

  • SURPRISE! (Score:4, Interesting)

    by wisebabo (638845) on Monday November 21, 2011 @12:29PM (#38125096) Journal

    I just love the mission of DARPA:

    "DARPA’s mission is to prevent technological surprise for the United States and to create technological surprise for its adversaries."

    It's the closest thing we've got to a science fiction agency or MIB (the first good movie at least). Too bad I'm not smart enough to work there. (The company I was at did get its basic technology for image compression fom DARPA, now that technology and variations on it, are used in movie theaters around the world.)

    Returning to the subject: their goal seems crazy ambitious (defeat 3.5 billion years of bacterial evolution?). Still, I heard of a project at MIT where researchers had shown (in mice) a technique which would defeat just about ALL virusis (they tried it on dengue, influenza, H1N1). So who knows? Still, gotta be just a teensy bit worried because a good bio-offense (weapon) depends on a good bio-defense.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by AdrianKemp (1988748)

      You seem to have fallen victim to the classic evolution misunderstanding.

      bacteria have been evolving for billions of years, and all of that means exactly squat when we come up with a completely novel, artificial weapon against them.

      evolution is the act of random mutations surviving, so a bacteria from 3.5 billion years ago would have exactly the same chance of surviving DARPAs new weapon as today's would (not much).

  • This far and still no Ghost in the Shell SAC references?

  • by swell (195815)

    Various forms of silver have killed bacteria for a couple thousand years without fail. It is currently used to sanitize hospitals and protect burn injuries. Many take it internally and claim good results.

    Unfortunately it's unpatentable and of no interest to corporations.

    • Re:silver (Score:5, Interesting)

      by tmosley (996283) on Monday November 21, 2011 @01:29PM (#38125850)
      Actually, it's terrible. It interferes with protein folding, and accumulates in the liver, even when applied topically. Doctors hate the stuff because the silver bandages they use for burn wounds turns black due to the moisture associated with the wound, which makes it so that they can't tell if there is necrosis or not.

      IANAD(octor), but my office is directly across from the department of surgery, and I have had discussions about this with them in the past. Silver is the best thing they have commercially available, but it is terrible. My company is developing better antimicrobials for them--non-leeching ones.
    • Copper also has antimicrobial properties. And you though the brass was just for show.
  • I'm amazed that nobody has either tagged or posted WCPGW yet. :-)

  •     In some parts of Africa, malaria is becoming vulnerable to the oldest drug against it, quinine, again. After quinine use was abandoned because it was ineffectual, malaria apparently got rid of the expensive biochemical hardware needed to deal with quinine.

        How about if this works with antibiotics? Stop using penicillin for 20 years, and then it works again?

    --PM

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