From vaccines to antidotes for drug poisoning, modern medicine has given us a lot of tools to protect us against health threats. But what if your genes could be harnessed to provide even better protection? And what if this could be done on a temporary basis — giving your body's defenses a boost just when they need it, without altering your genetic code?
This might sound far-fetched, but a new program created by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) aims to do just that. (DARPA is the U.S. agency tasked with developing new technologies for the military.) The program will explore ways to better protect people against biological and chemical threats by temporarily "tuning" gene expression — in other words, turning genes "on" or "off" — to strengthen the body's defense against health threats.
The researchers say that our bodies already have some level of protection against many health threats, and this protection is "written" in our DNA, according to a May 25 statement from the agency. But these defenses don't always work well enough to protect us. For instance, we might still get very sick from the flu even though our immune system tries to fight off the virus. [Biomimicry: 7 Clever Technologies Inspired by Nature]
"The human body is amazingly resilient. Every one of our cells already contains genes that encode for some level of resistance to specific health threats, but those built-in defenses can't always express quickly or robustly enough to be effective," Renee Wegrzyn, manager of the DARPA program, called "PREPARE" (which stands for PReemptive Expression of Protective Alleles and Response Elements), said in the statement. "PREPARE will study how to support this innate resistance by giving it a temporary boost, either before or after exposure [to threats], without any permanent edits to the genome."
In contrast to recent gene-editing techniques, such as CRISPR, which focus on permanently changing the genome by cutting DNA and inserting new genes, the PREPARE program will concentrate on techniques that don't make permanent changes to DNA. These techniques target the "epigenome," or the system that controls gene expression. Genes can be turned on or off by making external modifications to DNA, which don't change the DNA sequence, but instead affect how cells "read" genes.
To start, the PREPARE program will focus on four key health challenges: influenza viral infection, opioid overdose, organophosphate poisoning (from chemicals in pesticides or nerve agents) and exposure to gamma radiation, the statement said.
To be successful, the researchers must overcome a number of hurdles. First, they must identify specific genes that can confer protection against these health threats. Then, they will work to develop technologies that can modify these gene targets. They will also need to develop ways to deliver the technologies to the appropriate genes. Finally, the researchers will need to make sure that their technologies meet regulatory standards for drugs set by the Food and Drug Administration, the statement said.
Although the PREPARE program will focus on specific health threats at first, ultimately, the goal of the program is to develop a platform with common components that can be adapted to a number of emerging health threats, the statement said.
The program is also working with bioethicists to identify and address potential ethical, legal and societal issues that might be raised by the technology, the statement said.
Original article on Live Science.
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Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.