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DARPA Awards $4.8M Microfluidics Contract: Army Green Lights Bio-warfare Microarray

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With a flood of federal dollars now flowing into high-tech defense efforts, several genomics companies have reported winning defense-related contracts to develop advanced biochips.

Last week, Orchid BioSciences of Princeton, NJ, won a three-year, $4.8 million contract from the Office of Special Technology of the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to develop technology for microfluidic-enabled DNA synthesis that could yield “significant quantities” of long oligos, the company said.

The proposed technology will contain a “micro device” that can be integrated with electronic components to form subsystems within future bioassay systems for integrated DNA analysis, Orchid explained.

Meanwhile, a privately held biochip company that wishes to have its name withheld received a $10 million grant from the US Army to develop wearable biochips for detection of biological agents.

The Orchid project is being funded as part of the microelectronic bioprocesses program, for which DARPA solicited proposals last spring.

The objective of this program is “to demonstrate the feasibility of chip-sized microchemical oligonucleotide manufacture and processing,” according to the official DARPA solicitation. More specifically, the agency wants the capability to synthesize “significant quantities of 10,000 base-pair oligonucleotides within 24 hours, and to do this in a fashion that can become a module of a larger process.”

“This [project] is really intended to provide a major leap in the technological strategy of oligonucleotide synthesis,” said Michael Boyce-Jacino, Orchid’s vice president of research and development. “Oligos are used for everything from diagnostic devices to biological warfare detection devices to clones of gene expression. If we are successful in getting to 10,000-mers and have the ability to manufacture on the fly in a parallel device what are essentially genes, that [invention] can be used in a variety of applications.”

Although DARPA and Orchid are mum on the specifics of these applications, Boyce-Jacino stipulated that these could include the capability to produce large quantities of proteins in a microfluidics device, from anywhere. “If you needed to rapidly create a protein copy out of a new organism that you wanted to rapidly create vaccines for, you can essentially program in a number of sequences to be synthesized.”

But why does this process all have to be done within the constraints of a microfluidics device?

“Microfluidics gives you the ability to add on modules to do other things such as express the sequence or translate it,” Boyce-Jacino said. “The initial application will benefit tremendously from a really controlled parallel process where you can produce experimental quantities of sequences.”

A handful of Orchid scientists working at the company’s Princeton facility will work on the project, according to a company spokeswoman. Orchid will receive the contract funds in annual installments as a government program manager monitors the company’s progress, she said.

Orchid plans to focus on developing the oligonucleotide synthesis chemistry in the first year, then work toward incorporating this into a microfluidics device. The company has internal capabilities to develop microfluidics devices, but could eventually subcontract out production of a commercial application to a microfluidics company, Boyce-Jacino said.

Orchid will own the technology when it is developed, and intends eventually to license it. “Initially, though, our intentions are not to license the technology, but rather to use it to speed our own research,” the spokeswoman said.

The budget for the project from which Orchid received its grant was approximately $5 million in fiscal year 2001 and $8 million in FY 2002, but is expected to jump up to $11 million in FY 2003, or higher, if the recent trend toward increasing defense funding continues.

“The timing of our grant is coincidental. We had notice of the award before September 11th.” But in light of the terrorist attacks and defense response, “I’m sure that DARPA, as a responsive organization, will look to fast-track any additional technology that they think could be useful,” Boyce-Jacino said.

Indeed, the Army has already done so, sources say. The biochip company that received a $10 million grant from the Army had been waiting to hear about a proposal for a wearable microarray, and got the green light after the events of September 11 assured the military that they would be receiving additional funding for biodefense-related projects.

The wearable chip, which is in the concept stage, provides real-time analysis of any biological agents that may be in the air and information on the metabolic processes of the wearer. The chip is also designed to be able to send signals to the soldier and a command center to indicate when a biological agent is in the air or a metabolic process is interrupted. Additionally, this chip could be used by workers at nuclear plants or other civilians who are at high risk for being targets of biological warfare attacks.

With the current vigilance about preparedness for biological warfare and terrorism, these new grants are likely to become the first in a wave of defense-related projects to be initiated throughout the biochip industry.

— MMJ


 

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