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Scripps Reels in $7.9M from DARPA for 'Artificial Immune System' Technologies

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb) – Scientists at the Scripps Research Institute's campuses in California and Florida have received $7.9 million from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to create an "artificial immune system," or molecular libraries and compounds that can be used to detect and neutralize biological and chemical threats.

TSRI said today that it has received two new grants under DARPA's Folded Non-Natural Polymers with Biological Function, or Fold F(x), program. DARPA created the Fold F(x) program to spur development of new tools to combat the "full spectrum of chemical, biological, and disease threats" that could impact the US military, according to DARPA's website. As part of those efforts, DARPA wants researchers to develop processes that enable rapid synthesis of monomers and polymer libraries, automated polymer screening, and automated polymer sequencing and characterization – tools that could be used in a range of possible applications.

The Scripps team in Jupiter, Fla. will receive $5.7 million to develop libraries of functional compounds tagged with DNA barcodes and create automated strategies for rapid compound synthesis, screening, and production.

"We hope to create chemical libraries and screening platforms that are truly revolutionary in their capabilities," Scripps Professor Tom Kodadek said in a statement.

The grant also will fund the expansion of an ongoing drug discovery program at Scripps' Florida campus that is using a microfluidic circuit to screen single compounds suspended on artificial beads. This effort, led by Assistant Professor Brian Paegel, will make it possible to process more than 200,000 compounds in hours, said Scripps.

A research group at TSRI's La Jolla, Calif. campus will receive $2.2 million to develop variants of oligonucleotides that are stable and have increased functionality. Professor Floyd Romesberg will head this project, which will modify SELEX (Systematic Evolution of Ligands to Exponential Enrichment) technology to evolve molecules with novel functions.

"We plan to modify the classical SELEX methodology with two innovations from our previous work," Romesberg said.

One of these methods uses a DNA polymerase that recognizes nucleotides modified with sugars and imparts the corresponding polymers with increased thermal stability and resistance to enzymes that typically degrade oligonucleotides. Another innovation is an unnatural base pair that can be modified with linkers to attach different functionality to oligonucleotides. Combining these tools will make it possible to evolve novel biopolymers that are "stable and possess virtually any desired binding or catalytic activity," TSRI said.

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