Viral pathogens pose a continuous and shifting biological threat to military readiness and national security overall in the form of infectious disease with pandemic potential. Today’s limited vaccines and other antivirals are often circumvented by quickly mutating viruses that evolve to develop resistance to treatments that are carefully formulated to act only specific strains of a virus. DARPA’s INTERfering and Co-Evolving Prevention and Therapy (INTERCEPT) program aims to harness viral evolution to create a novel, adaptive form of medical countermeasure—therapeutic interfering particles (TIPs)—that outcompetes viruses in the body to prevent or treat infection.
Whereas current preventive and therapeutic approaches are designed to target viruses in their original state at the time of discovery or diagnosis, INTERCEPT uses viral evolution as the basis for its protective effect. Because TIPs are harmless, virus-derived particles with defective genomes that can only replicate in the presence of virus, they interfere with viral infection by competing for essential viral components. And, just like their parent virus, TIPs are susceptible to mutation over time and co-evolve with the mutating virus, thus diminishing the virus’ ability to evade the therapeutic.
Over the course of this countermeasure-development effort, INTERCEPT performer teams will use novel molecular and genetic design tools, high throughput genomic technologies, and advanced computational methods to address TIP safety, efficacy, long-term co-evolution, and generalizability. If successful, INTERCEPT will deliver new treatments for fast-evolving viruses such as Ebola, SARS, Dengue, Zika, and Chikungunya—providing broad coverage against multiple strains—and make available a platform technology that could be readily adapted to confront even engineered viral threats.
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