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US military wants vaccines that adapt to fight new viruses

A new DARPA program would keep antiviral treatments one step ahead.
Jon Fingas, @jonfingas
April 10, 2016
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Reuters/Paulo Whitaker

Vaccines and other antiviral treatments have one overriding, seemingly inescapable problem: since viruses evolve, a solution that works today can be completely useless tomorrow. The researchers at DARPA are convinced this is a solvable problem, however. They've launched an INTERCEPT (Interfering and Co-Evolving Prevention and Therapy) program that aims to create therapies which adapt in sync with the viruses they're meant to thwart. It'll largely revolve around therapeutic interfering particles (TIPs), or tiny slices of protein-shelled DNA that infiltrate cells and compete with viruses for protein shells. Since the particles should be produced faster than viruses, you end up with loads of dud viruses that dramatically reduce the impact of any viral load. Think of it as watering down a stiff drink.

And unlike vaccines, TIPs are likely to keep one step ahead, producing numerous variants. You might only need to develop a particle once; as soon as it starts working, it'll change on its own.

The emphasis, as you can guess, is on "might" -- the program is only just getting off the ground. DARPA and partners first have to develop TIP candidates, conduct long-term tests to prove that they work and refine them through computer models. The proposal process won't even start in earnest until April 28th. If TIPs work as planned, though, they could do a lot to soften the blow of viruses of all kinds, even when they're severe.

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