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UC-Boulder Wins $14.6M DARPA Contract for Integrated Microfluidic, Mass Spec Tech

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) — A research team at the University of Colorado, Boulder has received $14.6 million from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to develop a system that will use microfluidics and mass spectrometry to determine how drugs and biological or chemical agents affect human cells.

The team at UC-Boulder's BioFrontiers Institute will use the cooperative agreement award to fund the Subcellular Pan-Omics for Advanced Rapid Threat Assessment (SPARTA) project, UC-Boulder said Tuesday.

DARPA wants to better understand the biochemical mechanisms involved in cellular exposures to potentially dangerous agents with the goal of reducing mortalities caused by conflicts, and the BioFrontiers Institute investigators want to create tools that make that discovery process fast.

"Our goal is to rapidly speed up the process, identifying how these compounds work in weeks. This could lower the barriers to developing effective drugs that have minimal side effects," UC-Boulder Research Assistant Professor William Old said in a statement.

Old's interdisciplinary team is currently developing microfluidic devices to control and manipulate cellular components and to help determine molecular events involved in cellular responses to these agents.

These microfluidics tools will be integrated with mass spectrometry, and the institute will use $2.2 million of the DARPA funding to buy two next-generation mass spectrometers. The BioFrontiers Institute already has seven mass spectrometers in its Proteomics and Mass Spectrometry Core Facility, which Old directs.

To show what the team hopes the technology will do, UC-Boulder Research Associate Tristan McClure-Begley offered the example of sarin nerve gas, an agent that is well known and causes a malfunction in a cellular enzyme that controls muscles resulting in their overstimulation.

"We know this drug causes negative effects in multiple signaling pathways, but what we lack is a comprehensive understanding of the mechanisms that lead to long-term system damage in individuals that survive exposure," McClure-Begley said in a statement.

UC-Boulder and DARPA expect that the SPARTA program's technology will be useful in commercial applications beyond military use.

"We envision powerful applications of these new tools in a biomedical setting. Understanding how cells are affected by bacterial infection, for example, could lead to the development of new treatments," SPARTA Program Manager Emina Begovic said.