July 02, 2014
AFP Photo / Jim
Blood transfusions containing genetically engineered cells could be
the future of countering germ warfare, according to new research
sponsored by DARPA, which hopes
modified blood cells could help neutralize biological toxins
deployed against soldiers.
In their research, scientists from the Whitehead Institute for
Biomedical Research in Massachusetts were supported by the U.S.
Defence Research Projects Agency - renowned for being the scientific
funding branch of the U.S. military.
The researchers involved said that the
U.S. was very interested in deploying the discovery against any
biological weapons threats.
"We wanted to create high-value red
cells that do more than simply carry oxygen," says Whitehead
Founding Member Harvey Lodish, in a statement published on the
Whitehead Institute website.
Harvey Lodish collaborated with
Whitehead Member Hidde Ploegh in the project.
The breakthrough study (Engineered
Red Blood Cells as Carriers for Systemic Delivery of a Wide Array of
Functional Probes) has been published in the
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), which
harvests Lodish's expertise in red blood cells (RBCs) with
biochemical methods developed in Ploegh's lab.
Referred to as "sortagging," the
approach uses "bacterial enzyme sortase A" to bond between the
surface protein and a substance of choice,
"be it a small-molecule therapeutic
or an antibody capable of binding a toxin."
Such modifications leave the cells
"Here we've laid out the technology
to make mouse and human red blood cells in culture that can
express what we want and potentially be used for therapeutic or
diagnostic purposes," Lodish said.
AFP Photo /
RBC that constitute around a quarter of some 100 trillion cells
inside the human body, supply oxygen from the lungs to the organ
tissues and circulate for up to four months.
The latest methods have shown positive
results on laboratory mice, pointing to a near-future possibility of
modified RBCs to provide patients with long-term protection.
"Because the modified human red
blood cells can circulate in the body for up to four months, one
could envision a scenario in which the cells are used to
introduce antibodies that neutralize a toxin," said Ploegh.
"The result would be long-lasting
reserves of antitoxin antibodies."
Researchers hope that the method could
be used to deliver drugs to human organs and in a number of benign
medical treatment practices, such as treating stoke.
DARPA, created in response to the Soviet launch of the Sputnik, was
established in 1958 tasked with the development of new technologies
for use by the military.
"Creating and Preventing Strategic
Surprise," is the company's motto.
DARPA's interest in biological and
medical sciences is designed to improve DoD capabilities,
"benefit the U.S. military and save
In DARPA's own 2008 assessment of the
"Bio-Revolution," the author of the report Jonathan Beard,
states that DARPA's research focuses on,
"protecting human assets,
maintaining human combat performance, biology to enhance
military systems, and restoring combat capabilities after severe
Programs in the area of Maintaining
Human Combat Performance are aimed at,
"maintaining the warfighter's peak
physical and cognitive performance once deployed, despite
extreme battlefield stresses."