DARPA’s Justin Sanchez opens BDYHAX 2018
Saturday morning at BDYHAX kicked off with a talk by Dr. Justin Sanchez, director of DARPA’s Biological Technologies Office.
He began by discussing disease prevention as a matter of national security, then pivoted to his organization’s research into brain interfaces and helping injured veterans.
DARPA researchers have posed the question: Can we use our bodies as bioreactors to treat illnesses? Can we tell them to produce antibodies to defend against new diseases?
Their research indicates that we can.
“It’s very much like hacking the immune system,” said Sanchez.
Antibodies are used by fight off diseases your body has encountered before. Traditional vaccines expose the immune system to a tiny, inert amount of pathogens, causing your body to make the right antibodies in anticipation of being exposed to the disease. What DARPA is doing is using gene therapy to achieve the same outcome without exposing you to the disease.
To test their hypothesis, they worked with mice infected with flu and, in a later experiment, Ebola. The mice that received the gene therapy were able to successfully produce antibodies and fend off infection.
The goal of this project is pandemic prevention. DARPA hopes to be able to grow this research with the ultimate goal of being able to develop 20,000 doses in 60 days. Sanchez said to stay tuned, as more news on this subject would be released soon.
The rest of the talk was focused on DARPA’s brain research.
“Technology is going to change the way we interact with the brain,” he said.
Scientific advances in this area over the past 15 years have been significant.
In 2001, researchers weren’t sure if it was possible to record a large portion of the brain’s neurons in an awake, alert person. Today, not only can scientists monitor signals from neurons, they can also amplify them, send the signal to a computer and even activate neurons remotely–for example, to stimulate sensation.
“There’s no part of the brain or the peripheral nervous system that we can’t get to today to try,” said Sanchez, referring to new surgeries that allow us to monitor and stimulate more parts of the body.
But this progress didn’t come overnight.
“We didn’t just aspire to this impossible future. We built the foundations,” said Sanchez.
First, new and emerging brain surgery restored movement and sensation for disabled veterans. The next focus was on restoring memory. Now, scientists are working on neuropsychiatric health.
In closing, Sanchez turned to the larger implications of body hacking work.
“These are extremely powerful technologies, even in their most fundamental state… Who has access to them? Are they a right or a privilege?” he asked.
“Never shy away from these types of questions… It’s so important and it will help lead you down a pathway where you can change the world.”
— BDYHAX (@BDYHAX) February 3, 2018