DARPA looks to slow biological time to save lives on the battlefield
That time is of the essence when it comes to critical injuries on the battlefield won't be news to many, but how DARPA plans to manipulate it to keep casualties to a minimum will be. The agency is kicking off a new research program aiming to explore how molecular biology could be used to slow the speed of living systems, thereby extending the window for treatment after a traumatic injury and increasing the wounded's chances of survival.
DARPA has dubbed the venture the Biostasis program, and it might sound improbably futuristic, but alongside the agency's ambitions to turn plants into surveillance sensors, develop guided sniper bullets that change paths after being fired, and build unhackable computer systems, it doesn't seem all that out of place.
In its favor is the fact that similar processes can be found in nature, namely in the tardigrade and wood frog. These animals can enter a state of cryptobiosis, a kind of suspended animation that enables them to endure the harshest of conditions. For wood frogs, this includes an ability to be frozen solid for days at a time, before thawing out and resuming their regular lives.
In the case of the tardigrades, this means an ability to withstand temperatures as low as -272° C (-457.6° F) and high as 150° C (302° F), survive the vacuum of space and the crushing pressures at the bottom of the ocean, and also go without food, water and oxygen for extended periods of time. One study from Harvard and Oxford last year concluded that the utterly unkillable tardigrades will live to see the death of the Sun.
The mechanisms these creatures use for survival differ, and it is not so much their specific molecular systems that DARPA researchers will look to recreate. Rather, the focus will be on an overall ability to selectively apply the brakes to particular molecular processes at the protein level, doing so in a way that the entire organism is slowed in harmony and then avoids damage when it reverts back to normal speed.
"At the molecular level, life is a set of continuous biochemical reactions, and a defining characteristic of these reactions is that they need a catalyst to occur at all," said Tristan McClure-Begley, the Biostasis program manager. "Within a cell, these catalysts come in the form of proteins and large molecular machines that transform chemical and kinetic energy into biological processes. Our goal with Biostasis is to control those molecular machines and get them to all slow their roll at about the same rate so that we can slow down the entire system gracefully and avoid adverse consequences when the intervention is reversed or wears off."
The program will first look to develop simpler biochemical processes, like ones focusing on antibodies, and from there build towards larger-scale solutions that can be applied to whole cells, tissues and then eventually, entire organisms. It's also anticipated that the technology could be adapted to reduce reation times and therefore extend the shelf-life of blood products, biological reagents and drugs.
The research will take place over five years, after which DARPA hopes to have new tools that can be used to fend off death and permanent damage for longer periods following an injury.