DARPA tackles the DNA vaccine

After losing more than 1 million service days during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to severe diarrhea in troops, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency wants to combat the problem by making drugs based on nucleic acids such as DNA rather than the weakened or dead proteins typically used in vaccines.

The advantage to a DNA vaccine is saved time. Many companies make vaccines--particularly those for influenza--with viruses grown in chicken eggs. The process is costly and time-consuming and has led to shortages in the past. So far, no company has succeeded in developing a commercially available DNA vaccine. Merck ($MRK) tried a DNA-based flu vaccine, and others have attempted to use DNA to protect against HIV, Bloomberg reports.

DARPA will try to create a drug using people's own cells to produce antibodies to fight back against a disease. Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Wattendorf, DARPA program manager, didn't disclose how much funding is available for the project or which companies and other entities will participate, the news service says. The research program will likely last 5 years and focus on drug protection against cholera, colds and malaria, in addition to diarrhea.

"They want to be able to give somebody genes that would encode a protein and make antibodies that would quickly go out and protect you," Stephen Albert Johnston, co-director of the Center for Innovations in Medicine at Arizona State University, told Bloomberg. "And they don't want it permanently there, they want it temporarily there, a burst of exposure to your immune system and then it goes away."

DARPA, often dubbed a risk-taker, typically tackles projects with expected success rates of 10% or less, Johnston said. Success in the endeavor would be a slam dunk for vaccine research, an area some drugmakers tend to shy away from because of the high risk and cost in development and low profits compared with other drugs and devices.

- see the Bloomberg piece