The United States Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency(DARPA) has created a new division to oversee the agency’s portfolio of biological science and technology projects. The new Biological Technologies Office(BTO) will be responsible for new projects in that realm, in addition to taking on projects currently handled by other offices in DARPA.
While DARPA tends to be most associated with robotics, the agency also sponsors research into artificial intelligence, computing aircraft, and biological science research.
In fact, DARPA has a long history of supporting biological sciences research, with an eye to learning engineering lessons and integrating biological systems into its other projects.
DARPA has a history of funding high-risk, high-reward projects in the life sciences. In 1997, it announced a program to conduct research relevant to fighting biological hazards. More recently, it launched a Living Foundries program focused on using cells to make “molecular factories” that can make new materials.
The Defense Sciences Office has partnered with President Barack Obama’s Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies Initiative. That program funds projects to create therapeutic devices for neurological disorders and treatment of brain damage.
Recent life sciences projects at DARPA have included a project to create wireless connections between an amputee’s brain and a prosthetic limb. That research involved implanting a device in the brain that could send signals from prosthesis. According to Arati Prabhkahar, Director of the BTO, they plan to investigate ways for the brain to receive signals from a prosthetic limb.
According to the Agency press release the new Biological Technologies Office (BTO) has the mission of working to “harness the power of biological systems by applying the rigorous tools of engineering and related disciplines” to new technologies derived from life sciences research. The release goes on to state that biological research is no longer peripheral to technological innovation and is one of the “core sciences” for the future of defense technology.
The BTO will get started by taking on projects currently in the offices of Defense Sciences (DSO) and Microsystems Technology (MTO) among others. Three categories of project would be in the BTO portfolio: health and preparedness of military personnel in war zones, harnessing biological systems and incorporating them into projects, and applying biological complexity at large scales.
That first category of projects includes efforts like the Systems-Based Neurotechnology for Emerging Therapies (SUBNETS) and Autonomous Diagnostics to Enable Prevention and Therapeutics (ADEPT) program. These activities would join a number of others in the new biological sciences division that DARPA created.
The Biochronicity program, in existence for at least two years is another example of transferring biological sciences work. The project has researchers at Duke University investigating the role of time in shaping biological functions, with the intention of managing the effects of time on physiology.
In their press release, DARPA acknowledges that there might be ethical issues raised by some of these biological sciences projects. These projects are at the leading edge of science where ethical, legal and other social concerns might appear, it said.
Geoff Ling, Deputy Director of the Defense Sciences Office, said in the release that the DARPA had been working on “technological building blocks” for biotechnology developments and are now read to turn that knowledge into “practical tools and capabilities.”
DARPA’s portfolio of 23 life sciences programs have been transplanted into the new office, where they will continue until no longer needed. The BTO may decide to fund new projects as existing programs and projects come to an end.
The agency sees the future has a place for biological research so DARPA’s creation of a new biological sciences division to act on those opportunities is a good organizational move according to DARPA officials. At the same time, it looks like this office will create new opportunities for life sciences researchers in academia and in the private sector.
By Chester Davis