SRI International’s Parijat Bhatnagar receives DARPA award to continue groundbreaking research into engineered immunity

Cancer cell in human body

SRI International researcher Parijat Bhatnagar, Ph.D., has been awarded the Director’s Fellowship Option of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Young Faculty Award (YFA). The prestigious award provides additional funds for Bhatnagar and his team to continue developing cells that can be stimulated via extracorporeal devices to treat viral infections. Only top performers among the first phase of DARPA YFA awardees receive the Director’s Fellowship Option.

During the first phase of the project, the SRI team developed a genetic circuitry that can be used to trigger cells – via a stimulus delivered from outside the body – to regulate the synthesis of proteins with desired therapeutic properties inside the body. This is important because many proteins are toxic when systemically delivered in high quantities, but therapeutic when tightly regulated. Additionally, the team de-risked the feasibility of their approach by demonstrating that the cells they stimulate can synthesize proteins with antiviral effects.

With the Director’s Fellowship funding, the team intends to advance their cellular platform as a therapeutic that can universally target multiple viruses. This will involve integrating different technology components to generate cells that can be remotely activated to regulate production of targeted antiviral proteins. The team will also advance the technology by implementing the genetic circuits into an appropriate cellular “chassis” that will enable its human use.

“This is a potentially transformative approach for controlling and eliminating biological threats,” said Bhatnagar. “As we saw with COVID-19, the process of developing countermeasures for each new biological threat is time- and resource-intensive. If and when we face the next emerging infection, our cell-based platform could be immediately available, potentially saving lives by stopping a pandemic before it begins.

“It is an honor that DARPA has trusted our team to continue this work, which could protect our troops against unknown biological threats. It speaks volumes about the strength of our team and what we have accomplished together,” Bhatnagar added.

The objective of the DARPA YFA program is to identify and engage rising stars, and to expose them to DoD needs and DARPA’s program-development process. The program provides funding, mentoring, and industry and DoD contacts to awardees early in their careers so that they may develop their research ideas in the context of national security needs.

Bhatnagar’s research is also supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director’s New Innovator Award administered by the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB); and the Innovative Molecular Analysis Technologies (IMAT) program, a niche program within the National Cancer Institute (NCI), which supports potentially transformative next-generation technologies for targeting cancer.

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