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DARPA Awards ASU $38.8M to Build Epigenetic-Based Device to Measure WMD Exposure

NEW YORK – Arizona State University announced today that it has been awarded $38.8 million by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to build a field-deployable, point-of-care device that can determine if a person has been exposed to weapons of mass destruction or their precursors, in 30 minutes or less.

The grant, which will be funded over four years in phases and options, was awarded under DARPA's Epigenetic Characterization and Observation (ECHO) program, which aims to identify epigenetic signatures created by exposure to threat agents and to develop technology that performs highly specific forensic and diagnostic analyses to reveal the exact type and time of exposure.

ASU said the device it plans to develop will be capable of detecting the health effects of a number of substances associated with weapons of mass destruction — including biological agents, radiation, chemicals, and explosives — from a single drop of blood. The technology could also eventually be used for simple, low-cost monitoring of epigenetic changes to detect a broad range of human diseases.

The ASU project — known as DEPICT, or Diagnostic Epigenetics of Infectious agents and Chemical Toxicity — will use novel approaches to identify changes in global epigenetic signatures, and implement bioinformatics and machine learning tools to identify epigenetic biomarkers that can quickly and accurately reveal the nature and severity of exposures, the university added.

"ASU has long been committed to working across disciplines, often in tandem with corporate partners and government entities, to identify, address, and solve global grand challenges. We're proud to utilize our innovative approaches to advance our military's capability in this critical capacity," Sethuraman Panchanathan, ASU Knowledge Enterprise executive vice president and chief research and innovation officer, said in a statement. "Warfighting technology of the future will increasingly rely on the ability to rapidly develop and deploy highly integrated, responsive technologies like the ECHO project."

In June, DARPA awarded a $27.8 million contract to the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai as part of the ECHO program, to find epigenetic markers in blood that would identify previous exposures and time of exposure to materials that could be associated with weapons of mass destruction, and to develop a field-deployable instrument.

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