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Darpa Funds Early Disease Detection System

3-D print of influenza virus

3-D print of influenza virus (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, NIH)

8 Aug. 2019. The Defense Department’s advanced research agency is underwriting a system that gives an earlier notice of disease outbreaks and pandemics than current methods. The amount of the Defense Advance Research Projects Agency, or Darpa, award to RTI International in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, Profusa Inc. in San Francisco, and Duke University in Durham was not disclosed.

In its Sigma+ program, Darpa seeks more advanced warnings of bio-weapons attacks, disease outbreaks, and pandemics than are currently provided. Public health authorities today quickly offer data on new disease cases reported to clinics or hospitals, but in those cases people are already reporting disease symptoms, sometimes well after their first occurrence. For pandemics and bio-weapons attacks, waiting for symptoms to occur may be too late to take effective countermeasures.

“The ability to counteract the use of biological weapons is important to the nation’s defense and security,” says RTI senior research engineer Kristin Gilchrist in an organization statement. “With quicker detection,” she adds, “early countermeasures can help halt the spread of fast-moving pandemics, like influenza.”

RTI, Profusa, and Duke are developing a technology that routinely and unobtrusively monitors vital signs and respiratory system biomarkers that can alert individuals and health agencies of early physiological responses to pathogens. These wearable sensors are expected to be part of a network providing data on heart rate, tissue-oxygen levels, and biomarkers of infection for system-wide analysis. The team also plans to write machine-learning algorithms for detection of respiratory infections from these data that can then be aggregated and map-displayed for an effective response.

Profusa’s sensors are expected to capture these data from individuals. The company now offers a system called Lumee that reports on tissue-oxygen levels, an indicator of peripheral artery disease, a condition leading to reduced circulation, cramps, pain, and chronic wounds in the lower limbs.

The Lumee system consists of a self-contained sensor worn on the skin like a patch. The sensor has a tiny bio-compatible fiber measuring reflections indicating tissue-oxygen levels from a light-emitting gel, and read by an optical device. The Lumee device is cleared for marketing in Europe, but is not yet authorized for distribution in the U.S.

“We believe that data collected by monitoring real-time changes in body chemistry,” says Profusa CEO Ben Hwang in a company statement released through PR Newswire, “will allow us to make an important shift towards preventative care and away from costly sick-care needed after a pandemic, like the flu, has taken hold. This could lead to advances like more effective vaccines and disease prevention plans that improve health outcomes and potentially reduce health care costs.”

Darpa awarded Profusa a $7.5 million grant in 2016 for implantable sensors providing real-time measurement of multiple body chemistries, designed to monitor the health of military service members. In September 2018, Darpa featured Profusa’s work for the agency in a symposium highlighting Darpa’s 60th anniversary.

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