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Mount Sinai Gets $27.8M DARPA Grant for Epigenetic Tech to Measure WMD Exposure

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb) – The Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai announced today that it has been awarded a $27.8 million contract from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to find epigenetic markers in blood that identify previous exposures and time of exposure to materials that could be associated with weapons of mass destruction.

The four-year contract also includes the development of a field-deployable instrument that can perform highly specific forensic and diagnostic analyses to reveal the type and time of exposure, Mt. Sinai said, and covers markers for infectious agents, chemicals, and radiation.

The agreement is part of DARPA's new Epigenetic Characterization and Observation (ECHO) program, which will develop new approaches to analyze epigenetic markers and new instrumentation that can be used in the field by operators with minimal training. Mount Sinai noted that its researchers will lead a consortium that includes six other academic partners and two industry collaborators.

"Current forensic and diagnostic screening technologies can only detect the immediate presence of many materials and require sensitive instruments," Stuart Sealfon, director of the Center for Translational Systems Biology at the Icahn School of Medicine and the DARPA contract's principal investigator, said in a statement. "The human body logs exposures in a rich biographical record that we carry around with us in our epigenomes. The ECHO technology we and our partners are developing through the DARPA program will enable us to quickly read someone's epigenome from a small amount of blood to reveal possible exposure to infectious agents, chemicals, or radiation, even when other physical evidence has been erased."

The researchers are also hoping that the technology they develop through the ECHO program could also be used to diagnose infectious disease. DARPA said it intends to proactively engage with several independent ethical and legal experts to help inform its research plans.