Researchers are looking to find molecular signatures in blood that identify previous exposures and time of exposure to materials that could be associated with weapons of mass destruction (including infectious agents, chemicals, and radiation). The epigenome is biology’s record keeper, and Epigenetic technology will provide a new tool in the fight against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
Researchers at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai have been awarded a contract from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), a research agency within the U.S. Department of Defense, to find molecular signatures in blood that identify previous exposures and time of exposure to materials that could be associated with weapons of mass destruction (including infectious agents, chemicals, and radiation). The contract will also underwrite development of a field-deployable instrument that can perform highly specific forensic and diagnostic analyses to reveal the type and time of exposure.
Mount Sinai says that the contract, worth up to $27.8 million over four years as part of DARPA’s new Epigenetic Characterization and Observation (ECHO) program, will be used to develop new approaches to analyze epigenetic markers and to develop new instrumentation that can be used in the field by an operator with minimal training. The Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai researchers will lead a consortium comprising six other academic and two industry partners.
The epigenome is biology’s record keeper. Though DNA does not change over a person’s lifetime, the environment may leave marks on the DNA that modify how that person’s genes are expressed. The epigenome is the combination of all these modifications over time. Although the modifications caused by an environmental exposure can register within seconds to minutes, they imprint on the epigenome for decades, leaving a time-stamped biography of an individual’s exposures.
“Current forensic and diagnostic screening technologies can only detect the immediate presence of many materials and require sensitive instruments,” says Stuart Sealfon, MD, Director of the Center for Translational Systems Biology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and Principal Investigator of the contract. “The human body logs exposures in a rich biographical record that we carry around with us in our epigenomes. The ECHO technology we and our partners are developing through the DARPA program will enable us to quickly read someone’s epigenome from a small amount of blood to reveal possible exposure to infectious agents, chemicals, or radiation, even when other physical evidence has been erased.”
The hope is that with the capabilities developed through the ECHO project, someone in the field will immediately know if an adversary has handled or been exposed to threat agents. The same technology could also serve as a tool to diagnose infectious disease or reveal exposure to threat agents in our own military troops, so that medical countermeasures can be applied in time to make a difference. In addition, ECHO technology could open up new sources of forensic evidence that make battlefield collection of evidence safer, more efficient, and more accurate. By making it possible to deploy an analytical capability to vastly more locations, the military can enhance its ability to conduct global, near-real-time surveillance of emerging threats.
Mount Sinai notes that while the ECHO program is specifically focused on diminishing the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction and improving diagnostics for troops who may have been exposed to threat agents, many aspects of the new technologies that will be developed should have applications well beyond national security, for example in medical diagnosis and next generation laboratory research instruments. Accordingly, DARPA intends to proactively engage with several independent ethical and legal experts to help inform the Agency’s research plans, think through potential issues, and foster a broader dialogue in the scientific community on social implications.