In the public, private and academic sectors of the biomedical science community, one modern approach to research — Convergence in Healthcare — garners more interest than others. Described by a 2016 Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) whitepaper as a broad, integrative research effort between the chemistry, physics, computer science, engineering, mathematics and life science sectors, this research model has been steadily embraced by a number of major federal agencies, including the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
While the U.S. government has yet to designate an official federal agency with the responsibility of overseeing all convergence-based research initiatives, it’s important to note which federal groups are adding momentum to the movement. The following examples are some of the ways DARPA has contributed to important convergent healthcare initiatives.
Participation in the BRAIN Initiative
Announced by the Obama Administration in 2013, the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies® (BRAIN) Initiative is a collective research program dedicated to the exploration of the human brain. Its mission is to gain a better understanding of how the organ works and to apply this knowledge to the treatment and prevention of brain-based illness. To enrich the quality and diversity of research topics in this area, the BRAIN Initiative was designed to be a collaborative effort between many different public and private organizations around the world, including a number of government agencies. The list of alliance members, affiliates and participants includes DARPA, which has contributed to a number of important programs within the BRAIN Initiative.
DARPA maintains a complete record of its involvement with the BRAIN Initiative on its website. One of the most important programs the agency has worked with is the Restoring Active Memory (RAM) program, in which scientists create implantable, wireless neural interfaces that apply targeted neural stimulation to restore memory function in patients with brain injury or neurological disease. Other exciting DARPA-supported programs within the BRAIN Initiative include neurotechnologies designed to help patients who have suffered limb loss regain some sensation of touch through advanced prosthetics connected to the brain. While most of DARPA’s involvement with the BRAIN Initiative is rooted primarily in searching for ways to support military personnel, its research benefits the entire field of neuroscience.
Establishment of the Biological Technologies Office
In April 2014, DARPA announced the establishment of its Biological Technologies Office (BTO) as an effort to “harness the power of natural systems for national security.” This department within DARPA initiates collaborative research efforts between the biological, engineering and computer sciences to focus on a broad spectrum of topics. These include service member health maintenance and restoration, the enhancement of natural biological systems and successful control of and response to contagious disease vectors.
A reflection of the power of convergence, the BTO’s programs include research on topics such as Technologies for Host Resilience (THoR), in which scientists explore therapeutic strategies for combatting emergent infectious disease in remote settings. Other programs focus on medical innovations that are more intuitive in nature, including the In Vivo Nanoplatforms (IVN) program. This initiative aims to develop microscopic internal and environmental sensors capable of constantly monitoring the human body for impending signs of illness or abnormalities.
One of the most exciting examples of convergent research within the BTO is its Biostasis program, announced in spring 2018. By exploring methods to manipulate the kinetic and chemical energy produced by cellular proteins and molecular activity, scientists hope to find new ways of extending life for traumatically injured soldiers until they can obtain proper treatment. In essence, these researchers aim to slow the body’s biochemical processes and thus delay the permanent physical damage and death that can result from a serious infection or bodily injury.
A five-year initiative, the Biostasis program intends to share tools and information with federal medical agencies to benefit the civilian population as well as the military. Research findings discovered through convergent programs such as Biostasis are an excellent example of the power of integrative scientific research to yield innovations that create life-saving change.
Another highly valuable way DARPA bolsters the Convergence in Healthcare movement is by participating in research initiatives alongside other well-funded government agencies with different focuses. One of the best results of such multi-agency collaborations is the Tissue Chip for Drug Screening program.
The Tissue Chip for Drug Screening program was developed through the combined efforts of DARPA, the National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Center for Advancement of Science in Space, along with a number of industry partners. Convergence-based research led this scientific super group to develop accurate models of living human cells and tissues contained within 3-D platforms. The 3-D models (or “tissue chips”) can then be used to test new drug therapies, biologic agents or vaccines for toxicity faster and more effectively. The tissue chips have given scientists in many fields the ability to accurately examine the effects of new substances on varied areas of the body quickly and without risking the safety of patients.
DARPA’s contribution to initiatives such as the Tissue Chip for Drug Screening program is an important step toward widespread, immersive convergent research. With more than $3 billion in funding allotted to the agency each year, an interest in convergence-based research from such a large-scale federal agency represents an important step forward in the development of new technologies. Partnerships with broadly focused scientific interests such as DARPA are crucial to the modernization of medical study and the improvement of human health.