DARPA wants 'shape-shifting' vaccines that evolve with viruses

Vaccines are great, but they're no match for most viruses in play at any given time. This is due largely in part to the ever-changing nature of viruses and the expense and difficulty in developing new vaccines to target them. DARPA wants that reality to change, citing the numerous concerning viruses, past and present, that affect humanity. Under the "INTERCEPT" program, DARPA seeks "shape-shifting" vaccines that adapt to kill off viruses as they evolve.

One of the biggest virus scares at the moment is the zika virus, but ebola was just recently a big issue and other viruses, including influenza and dengue, are a continuous problem. Once someone is infected, the virus is able to "mutate and morph as they reproduce inside their hosts," says DARPA, making any vaccines quickly obsolete. If the agency's new INTERfering and Co-Evolving Prevention and Therapy (INTERCEPT) program proves successful, though, things will change in a big way.

Under the program, DARPA seeks a solution that uses something called TIPs — Therapeutic Interfering Particles — which are described as small entities similar to viruses that are made in labs. TIPs are essentially genetic material packed within a protein shell, something that mimic the way a virus is structured. Because of their similarities, TIPs can enter cells like viruses but don't proceeded to hijack that cell as viruses do.

When a virus invades these same cells, TIPs genomes mix with the viruses and help form their protein shells, resulting in what are essentially diluted viruses and "dud viruses" that either can't get a foothold in the host, or that are weak and easily vanquished. For this reason, it doesn't matter if the viruses evolve, as they'll be evolving right alongside the TIPs.

Said DARPA Program Manager Jim Gimlett:

You can think of these TIP-filled envelopes as tiny Trojan horses, but instead of containing warriors they contain pretenders that ultimately outnumber real disease-causing viruses and interfere with their ability to replicate ... Once we develop a TIP that works for a given virus, we expect it to generate a steady stream of variants so there will always be a population of TIPs with the right genetic stuff to disrupt any new strains of that virus that may arise.

DARPA's seeking researchers who will participate in three parts of the program, including developing TIP candidates, conducting long-term studies with them, and developing computer models.