Biodesign earns $5.3 million to develop system for rapid response to disease

September 20, 2010

By hammersmith

The Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University has been awarded a $5.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Defense for an unusual and ambitious drug-development project: Design a system that would enable on-demand creation of a new antibiotic for an unknown infectious disease–in less than seven days.

The lead researcher on the grant, Stephen Albert Johnston, directs Biodesign’s Center for Innovations in Medicine. He said that his team, which has worked on other unusual projects, including efforts to develop vaccines for HIV and some forms of cancer, already has technology that can produce candidate treatments for diseases in as little as two weeks through the creation of synthetic antibodies.

“When DARPA asked how to solve this problem, we were already prepared for it,” Dr. Johnston said in the Phoenix Business Journal.

The new funding, provided by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency‘s (DARPA) Accelerated Critical Therapeutics program, will allow Dr. Johnston to refine his processes and cut that already speedy time frame in half. DARPA believes such a response time could be essential in the event of a biological-warfare event.

Under traditional drug-development protocol, scientists shepherd a potential therapeutic through a lengthy process, which can take a decade or longer to complete.

“Half of this period involves all the research and development of the therapeutic, the chemistry to make it, and so on,” said Dr. Johnston. “The other half is all the clinical trials testing and FDA approval.”

Dr. Johnston’s laboratory is approaching the development process quite differently. His team is designing what would essentially be a warehouse of synthetic antibodies–10,000 peptide combinations that might have therapeutic value. The researchers refer to these potential treatments as synbodies.

“Our idea is to screen a large library of possible pathogens, identifying a broad class of effective binders,” said Chris Diehnel, an assistant research professor in Dr. Johnston’s group. “We would then produce stocks of peptides to be kept waiting in the wings, so that when we have a live-fire test, the unknown pathogen can be screened to identify several low-binding-affinity peptides. These we will rapidly assemble into a synbody, targeting that pathogen specifically.”

“If the basic concept works, the chemistry is there to make thousands of doses in only one week,” Dr. Johnston said in the Arizona Republic.

For more information:

Biodesign Institute receives $5.3M grant to fight infectious diseases,” ASU news release, 09/13/2010

ASU lab finding antibiotics to block biological attacks,” Arizona Republic, 09/13/2010

ASU gets $5.3M to speed drug development,” Phoenix Business Journal, 09/10/2010