How quickly can a medical countermeasure against an unknown infectious disease be created and deployed to the field? During a live fire exercise, that was the question recently addressed by the Vaccines and Medical Countermeasures Department of the Biological Defense Research Directorate, Naval Medical Research Center.
"Emerging disease threats, manmade or natural, have the potential for serious consequences within days to weeks of exposure,” said Dr. Andrea Keane-Myers, the head of BDRD's vaccine and medical countermeasures department. "However, countermeasures against infectious disease typically take years or decades to discover, develop, and deploy by conventional approaches. That is one of the reasons the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency sponsored a 7-Day Biodefense program exercise."
The DARPA program supports highly innovative approaches to counter any known, unknown, naturally occurring or engineered pathogen, using novel technologies to prevent infection, extend survival, provide transient immunity, or speed the onset of adaptive immunity.
"In this live fire exercise, where investigators tested an unknown virulent agent, BDRD researchers, with collaborators at the Ohio State University, delivered outstanding results using their own novel approach. The department also contributed beyond expectations with the testing of another group's technical approach," said Keane-Myers.
The BDRD group's approach was to develop a novel delivery platform that could rapidly produce an immune response against the unknown agent. During the exercise they tested several possible configurations of a vaccine that extended survival of the exercise's vaccinated groups by 80-100% against an otherwise lethal infection. The group also distinguished itself while providing biosafety level 3 support for another participant in the program. These successes demonstrated BDRD's capability for conducting state of the art medical countermeasure research as well as for partnering with other government, academic, and private sector organizations in biodefense research.
"This live-fire exercise proved to be something of a paradigm shift, as we succeeded in manufacturing and implementing a medical countermeasure in real time without needing a priori knowledge of the agent," said Keane-Myers.
The department's approach to the exercise drew on several aspects of their research portfolio, including microparticle encapsulation for antigen delivery, immune enhancement of vaccines using rationally based immune-stimulating adjuvants, rapid protective responses, and vaccine production techniques for removing toxins from whole-cell extracts. Other aspects of their portfolio investigate novel vaccine delivery systems, vaccine target discovery, passive immunity for post-exposure treatment, and novel vaccine production methods.
This well rounded medical countermeasure program is further integrated into BDRD's overall strategies for biological defense. BDRD's genomics group can characterize novel agents for genetic and biochemical features that can be exploited for detection, prevention, and treatment, while Immunodiagnostics and Molecular Diagnostics departments use the unique characteristics of biological agents to develop assays for agent detection.