The program is known as Technologies for Host Resilience (ThoR). As stated on the DARPA website (1), it aims to uncover the reasons why a minority of individuals prove to be resilient to an infectious organism that every population inevitably encounters.
Part of the research will include exploring the fundamental biology of so-called “host tolerance” in animal populations. By looking for “biological mechanisms” in animals which seem to be resistant to disease, THoR aims to expand similar treatment options to humans. Col. Matt Hepburn, DARPA program manager, spoke of THoR’s objectives:
“Our aim with THoR is to lay the foundation for new treatments that would enable the body to more easily and safely cope with infection.”
Referring to how the THoR program is aimed at helping patients “weather the storm” during the critical phases of acute illness, Hepburn added:
“Among other potential advantages, these new technologies would prevent the body’s overreaction to infection and buy time for the individual’s natural recovery mechanisms to kick in.”
Traditional Disease Treatments vs. THoR
Part of the ThoR research program includes identifying and validating pro-tolerance interventions and to recreate tolerance mechanisms in susceptible animal populations.
DARPA talks about how traditional disease treatments, antibiotics, have been extremely successful. However, it also notes how despite the success of antibiotics, there is a serious downside to this conventional form of treatment to diseases, namely the viruses that manage to survive the antibiotics will defy them from then on, thus giving rise to new antibiotic-resistant strains.
Such sentiments are echoed in the (2) US Government’s “National Action Plan For Combating Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria”. As the paper writes, since the discovery of penicillin in 1928, antibiotics have played a crucial role in saving the lives of millions of people around the world.
However, the former miracles of antibiotics are now being reversed with the emergence of drug-resistance in bacteria. Consequently, as the Government report highlights, the treatment of many bacterial infections are becoming “increasingly limited, expensive, and, in some cases, non-existent.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), up to two million illnesses and approximately 23,000 deaths in the US alone are caused by drug-resistant bacteria.
In September 2014, President Barack Obama issued the Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria National Action Plan, which outlines methods for implementing a national strategy for Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria.
Aimed at finding new treatment to reduce reliance on antibiotics, DARPA’s THoR program certainly complements the nationwide efforts to combat anti-biotic resistance.
Seeking Novel Methods
According to the DARPA press release, the THoR program could also help treat life-threatening infections, such as sepsis.
Sepsis affects more than 18 million people around the world, killing between 30 and 50 percent of them. The disease poses a serious threat to soldiers of war who sustain injuries that make them susceptible to infection. As DARPA writes, if successful, THoR could provide significant benefits to the health and readiness of the military.
In a synopsis to the THoR program, the Federal Business Opportunities’ website states how the research is seeking novel methods and technologies to discover fundamental relationships that underlie host tolerance to infection in animals (3).
What is interesting is how DARPA is researching the quest to fight diseases. In order to successfully find new treatments to reduce reliance on antibiotics, DARPA is looking beyond the immune system and is analyzing the “biological mechanisms” in animals that seem to be making them immune to infectious diseases.