DARPA: Let's Get Rid of Antibiotics, Since They'll Be Obsolete Anyway

By Valerie Ross | November 22, 2011 11:50 am

For the better part of a century, antibiotics have given doctors great powers to cure all sorts of bacterial infections. But due to bacteria’s nasty habit of evolving, along with widespread overuse of these drugs, disease-causing bacteria are evolving antibiotic resistance at an alarming rate, making it much harder, and at times impossible, to wipe them out. DARPA, the military’s research agency, is eyeing an innovative solution to the problem: Rather than struggling to make better antibiotics, ditch them altogether. It may be time to start killing bacteria a whole new way.

The agency issued a call for proposals to develop a system of bacteria-beating drugs based on siRNAs, tiny scraps of genetic material that turn genes on and off. The idea is to hitch siRNAs onto a nanoparticle, which can make its way into the bacterial cell. What’s more, DARPA wants siRNAs “whose sequence and objective can be reprogrammed ‘on-the-fly’ to inhibit multiple targets within multiple classes of pathogens,” meaning they can be easily tweaked and tailored in the lab to combat a new bacteria or virus, be it a naturally emerging disease or a carefully designed bioweapon.

DARPA is known for its at times farfetched requests, but as Katie Drummond at Wired’s Danger Room points out, the basic science has been worked out—albeit not with the range or speed DARPA has in mind:

[R]esearchers already know how to engineer siRNA and shove it into nanoparticles. They did it last year, during a trial that saw four primates survive infection with a deadly strain of Ebola Virus after injections of Ebola-targeted siRNA nanoparticles. Doing it quickly, and with unprecedented versatility, is another question. It can take decades for a new antibiotic to be studied and approved. Darpa seems to be after a system that can do the same job, in around a week.

Read more at Danger Room.

Image courtesy of somegeekintn / Flickr

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine
  • Matt H.

    And what makes siRNA nanoparticles not subject to the same kinds of FDA regulation that other drugs are?

    SOPA delenda est!

  • NewEnglandBob

    This should be a call to show how hopeless these people at Darpa have become.

    I just returned from 6 days in the hospital due to an immediate onset of cellulitis – a massive and septic bacterial infection in the deep tissue of one leg.

    Upon arrival in an ambulance, my white blood cell count exceeded 30,000, my blood pressure has dropped to 77/44 and I had a fever of 102.

    What was this treated with? A very old phase 1 antibiotic, via IV: ampicillin. I gained 24 lbs in 6 days due to IV fluids.

  • Catherine

    Holy crap New Englang Bob, I’m glad you didn’t loose your leg! My mom had cellulitis & almost lost hers (back in 1992) 2 yrs ago I had the same thing from an infected bugbite, I still have a big scar on my right ankle from the infection, doesn’t bother me, I’m lucky to still have the foot & I tell people(most don’t) that ask about it if a wound or bugbite doesn’t start to heal within a fews days & starts itching to seek medical help. I also got my first test for type 2 diabetes cause I heard people with type 2 diabetes are prone to skin infections, but that wasn’t it, atleast.

  • SmarterthanBob

    Hey Bob, you’ve completely missed the ball here. DARPA isn’t calling for removal of all current use antibiotics from health care applications. What is being suggested here is that instead of pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into further chemical antibiotic research and development, we should be putting that money into novel types of anti-bacterial treatment such as siRNA. siRNA, for those too lazy to click the link provided in the article, stands for small-interfering RNA. It functions by interfering with the expression of a specific gene (determined by the target sequence of the siRNA molecule). It can act in highly specific manners, and as suggested by the article, can be even by tailored against specific strains (strains like methicillin resistant staph aureus and multidrug resistant tuberculosis come to mind)! Another advantage to using siRNA instead of a chemical antibiotic is that, theoretically, the siRNA treatment should be much less susceptible to adaptation by the targeted pathogen.

  • Steve D

    So how exactly do these experiences discredit DARPA? What will you do when your cellulitis is caused by something immune to all existing antibiotics? DARPA is looking beyond antibiotics, whose days seem to be numbered.

    Posts like these make me wonder why we need national health care. Just post your symptoms on a blog, and a bunch of people with zero expertise in medicine will diagnose and treat it for you. I’ll donate $1 trillion to the project. Of course, it will be homeopathically diluted by 10^14 for maximum effectiveness.

  • scribbler

    Steve D: (chuckle)

  • DrizzlingInSeattle

    Where this is really going is toward computable medicines, that is medicines that compute within the body. First stage is to produce static biologically active substances but do so quickly as DARPA has suggested. The next step, considerably further off, is to produce medicines that follow rules and can make decisions (compute) at a molecular level. This targets much more than infections, it also has potential to deal with cancers and various metabolic disorders with genetic origins. In fact, it is likely the only long term hope to really deal with the full spectrum of cancers.

    Consider that the anti-biotic strategy took almost a century to reach fruition, but the strategy began shortly after the discovery of microbes as disease agents. Quite simply the goal was to find a sufficient differential so a substance (“anti-biotic”) would be much more toxic to the infectious organism than to the host. Eventually treatments like mercury gave way to modern antibiotics.

    Evolution is not magic. We are in an information arms race between bacteria and virus and our biochemical capabilities. Disease agents have very powerful genetic algorithms that have proven effective over billions of years, so effective that we ourselves are the product of them. But if the information content of our arsenal can advance faster than biological processes the new medicine will win. If not, the old medicines will lose.

  • Steve W

    @Steve D. Agreed.

    DARPA is taking the initiative to develop a tool that /will/ be needed in the future, no matter how much people don’t like to think about it. Your infection was treated easily because the infection was a simple infection that can be treated with that type of antibiotic. The problem is when it’s something like MRSA that is resistant. New infectious bacteria are being discovered every year that could end mankind. Be thankful that DARPA is doing this research, because as of right now, consumer pharmaceuticals cannot even treat a lot of them, much less cure them.

  • dcwarrior

    I always wondered why whoever regulates drigs doesn’t require pharmaceutical companies to rotate classes of antibiotics out of use then back in, so that germs don’t necessarily maintain their resistance to them?

  • minneapolitan

    somewhat of a disingenous argument re: MRSA since we wouldn’t have that without systemic misuse of antibiotics by the agricultural industry. but regulation is a 4 letter word these days & of course its foolish to think people would be willing to to pay slightly more for safe, humanely raised meat products if they better understood the consequences of mass produced livestock.

  • Frank V.

    DARPA might be on this for the use of siRNA as a massive genocide weapon.

    1. If you miss a particular gen, you don’t die.
    or even worse,
    2. If you have a particular gen, you don’t die.

  • Catherine

    of course, us lay people that have suffered/recovered from treatable infections shouldn’t share experiences in hopes of saving someone else’s life or limb. Let me tell you something no dr, nurse or dentist ever told me that a urinary tract infection, an absessed tooth, or cellulitis can still kill you in this day & age. It was mostly ‘lay people” that hepled me out & saved my life. Should I have never thought to myself “holy crap, mom’s fever is spiking, I’d better call an ambulance,”I may have saved her leg at the very least. It freaking said on the bottle of nyquil or something if a fever doesn’t improve in 3 days, seek medical attention & that’s what I did. Should my male coworker not have told me about getting antibiotics asap when I mentioned in passing that my toothache stopped, but now I have achey muscles & a fever? Should the young intern never have spoken up when I showed up at an emergencey rooom with yet another fever, he yelled at the top of his lungs to get me a room/ a spinal tap & urinary test Now. If I saw him tomorrow I’d shake his hand, turns out I had a tract infetion that turned into a kindney infection, & came very close to taking me out. The young man thought it might be meningitis, he was wrong but I’m lucky he was there, he wasn’t even working the floor I was on, he just saw me put money in the soda machine & decided to step in. Donot think that us “lay people” know nothing or don’t want people to seek real medical attention. Oh & should my mom had not reminded what happens if you don’t get cellulitis treated asap, I had made a drs. apt for it, my mom said in 6 weeks (when my apt was) it’s going to be alot worse, find someone to treat it now. Yea, cause how would she know? It’s not like she’d been there. & it was on the antibiotic I was using, if your wound doesn’t heal get worse, what you think I made that up?

  • Catherine

    oops, that’s supposed to read if your wound doesn’t start to heal in3 to 5 days or gets worse seek medical attention & it was on the back of a tube of over the counter antibiotic cream I was using, it only took a week for the infection to spread & leave a scar, I caught it before it spread more & a fever set in. My old coworker remembered form his childhood that his cousin died from an infection caused by an absessed tooth when I later asked himhow he knew the connection between a sudden fever & a tooth ache. If we can’t step up to plate & help each other out, than what are are we doing here?

  • Ahmed Kazikian

    bacteriophages! that is all

  • Eric


    About 2 years ago I came down with something similar. It started as an ear infection, 2 days later the whole right side of my face had swollen so much that I looked like the elephant man. By day 3 I had puss just coming from the side of my cheek, but no sores. It was some of the worse pain I have ever had and it put me in the hospital for over a week. Anyway docs didn’t have a clue what it was, that’s even after sending specimens off to labs. They said I was very close to death and none of the antibiotics appeared to be doing much good. around day 5 I started getting better, the doctors said that it appeared as if my own immune system did most of the work not the antibiotics. Even though they couldn’t get a conclusive results from the labs, they believed it was an ear infection the moved into the sub-dermal tissue and behaved kinda like a staff infection. They put me on a Z pack (zithromax?) first for the ear infection and it did absolutely nothing. I guess my point is, I think they should do away with antibiotics too. They are prescribed too much and too soon, no one ever gives they’re immune system a chance to fight off anything and with the way people are so anti germ and dirt etc. it amazes me our bodies are able to fight anything. I take care of my health and don’t avoid germs and dirt like its the plague, and when I do come down with something I let my body fight it as long as I can usually can stand it or as long as it doesn’t appear to be worsening, and I never get a flue shot. We have become so afraid of getting sick that we run off to the doctor for antibiodics for things as simple as a runny nose and we avoid germs and dirt like the plague. I believe it is because of this that most people have week immune systems. Well that’s my 2 cents.

  • Jay Fox

    The current system of antibiotics is like using a sledge hammer to swat mosquitoes off your arm. You’ll kill the bug, and bruise your arm in the process.

    The proposed system would identify the problem and target a treatment at only the problem, not the entire organism (us). What’s not to like?

    Whatever the technology, there is always room for abuse by unscrupulous individuals. The potential for good far outweighs it, in this case.

  • Avi

    To Drizzling in Seattle : The way I understand Development via siRNA, is a process to develop an artificial assistance to original immune system which would lead (eventually) to an artificial immune system itself. The point to note that we should be playing with the life forming elements like RNA with utmost care & deploy it onlt as a last option, as there is nothing left to help us if they go bad in anyway, No levels left in the game…ZOMBIEs would be a close reality…….We never know.
    We should understand that our original immune system is so strong and super intelligent that we are still working on surface of it. It is quite like bacteria’s restraint development system, we have pulled it down and weakened it via our synthtic lifestyle.
    Humankind should try to develop itself using natural means like nature develops it, we move so fast and furious that rather in the effort of development, we disturb & destroy and then years after we turn back. That is why, we are seeing ORGANIC nowadays…If we do not learn from our own mistakes we did through misdeploying our synthetics in agriculture and medicines, may be we will be back to grow ORGANIC HUMAN & ORGANIC HUMAN GENOME itself in not distant future…
    It would be necessary for our survival that we go to basics and nature in all possible ways and put sustainable synth only if it is needed. If we do not learn from our mistakes, then we know what we call ourselves…

  • agent

    Frank V. si-RNA could be used as a mass genocidal weapon but so could modern antibiotics in the same sense. Cleverly designed viruses or bacteria could have resistances to all known antibiotics except those whose formulation is known only to a very limited circle of producers. The disease spread would be far more rapid than a new antibiotic could be formulated, produced, and distributed.

    The concept is interesting but ultimately very frightening as the si-RNA ‘switching’ could, in theory, inadvertently incorporate itself into the human genome with unknown effects. Nevertheless, it’s a future vision worthy of pursuit and theoretically capable of treating viral infections such as HIV (unlike modern antibiotics). However, I’m not sure that si-RNA won’t become obsolete and even counterproductive twenty or thirty or more years from now in a parallel to traditional antibiotics. That being said, I’m sincerely glad the medical establishment isn’t seriously discussing the silver nano-particle [colloidal silver] fad as the solution to bacterial resistance.


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