Only the Strong Survive

By Jon Sung | Stardate 68944 | Earthdate 01.01.1970

“THE WEAK WILL PERISH.”

If you’re looking for an intimidating racial ethos, Species 8472’s is a doozy—the only one in the Star Trek universe that holds a candle to the Borg’s “Resistance is futile.” And it’s not just a lot of tough talk: Species 8472 can survive exposure to a vacuum, have an immune system that can be charitably described as “psychotic,” and fly around in ships that can pull off the Death Star-style party trick of linking energy beams to destroy entire planets.

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Is that something we ought to aspire to? Probably not, or at least not entirely. The Defense Department agrees.

Allow me to explain.

Whenever a disease strikes a population, there are always a few rare individuals who don’t get sick. It’s not that they’re completely immune to the pathogen; there’s something in their bodies that enables them to keep the pathogen’s numbers down and fight it off better than others. This is what’s known as “host tolerance” or “host resilience,” and it’s something the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Biological Technologies Office wants to look at. DARPA calls their initiative THoR (“Technologies for Host Resilience”) and you can get a look at the announcement and call for proposals at the Federal Business Opportunities website, which is a fascinating rabbit hole all on its own. Here’s how the THoR announcement summarizes what they’re after:

This program strives to discover host tolerance mechanisms in order to identify a suite of interventions suitable for use in humans to mitigate the deleterious effects of infectious diseases. THoR is seeking novel methods and technologies to discover and understand these responses in hosts that are resilient when exposed to infectious diseases. Specifically, DARPA aims to discover the fundamental biological relationships that underlie host tolerance to infection in animal populations in order to provide the foundational knowledge required to develop interventions for potential transition into clinical use. This program is organized into three Technical Areas (TAs): 1) Identification and characterization of animal hosts with tolerant phenotypes; 2) Discovery of biological mechanisms that underlie tolerance; and 3) Identification of interventions that utilize tolerance mechanisms with the goal of reducing morbidity and mortality due to infection.

Let’s break it down:

DARPA wants to be able to figure out how to identify individual animals that have host tolerance so they can do it reliably, which makes sense. Wouldn’t it be great to wave a device (perhaps a medical tricorder) over an animal and find out whether it’s got host tolerance? Then you could start figuring out where host tolerance comes from in the first place.

Right now, nobody knows.

DARPA’s announcement makes some interesting suppositions; they expect anyone who steps up to be prepared to investigate a bunch of different (and completely fascinating) avenues that may overlap or interconnect in weird ways:

  • Is it a genomic factor? Something in a resilient individual’s genes that codes for resistance or somehow makes that individual less susceptible to invasion?
  • What if it’s transcriptomic or epigenomic: the way those genes are expressed?
  • Maybe it’s proteomic—the proteins in a resilient individual might be modified, or exist at different levels than normal.
  • Suppose it isn’t proteins at all? What if it’s some other kind of molecular signal, or even a metabolic byproduct of some kind that’s just floating around in the individual’s cells?
  • Or hell, what if the host’s microbiome somehow plays a role in resilience?

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What’s the prize waiting at the end of all this work? If host tolerance can be figured out at all, DARPA wants to see if we can replicate it. Why? If there’s a way to make an ordinary, non-resilient individual into a resilient one, then we may never need antibiotics ever again, a breakthrough that would revolutionize medicine as we know it in a way we haven’t seen since the discovery of penicillin in 1928.

Antibiotic resistance is becoming a huge problem. Every time an antibiotic is used, some tiny percentage of the bacterial population it’s targeted to destroy just isn’t bothered by it; while their comrades are destroyed, they sit and wait. The resistant populations eventually become the majority, and the only way to kill them is to find new antibiotics. Finding new substances that will destroy bacteria while leaving human cells healthy turns out to be extremely difficult, and in meantime, organisms like MRSA (which stands for “Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus”) multiply. If we can find a whole new avenue to thwart pathogens that doesn’t rely on antibiotics, we’ll have changed the game on bacteria—possibly forever.

In clinical terms, Species 8472 is resilient as all get-out. In fact, their bodies don’t just repel infection: if they get their claws on you, their cells will actually go on the offensive, rampaging through your system to consume you from the inside out. It’s not pretty.

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Of course, there’s no need to go that far; DARPA and the rest of us will be happy if we can just work out where host resilience comes from, and how we can make it work for us. I absolutely draw the line at planet-killing bioships.


Jon Sung is a contributing writer for XPRIZE and copywriting gun-for-hire to startups and ventures all over the San Francisco Bay area. When not wrangling words for business or pleasure, he serves as the captain of the USS Loma Prieta, the hardest-partying Star Trek fan club in San Francisco.

XPRIZE is an innovation engine. We design and operate prize competitions to address global crises and market failures, and incentivize teams around the world to solve them. Currently, we are operating numerous prizes, including the $30M Google Lunar XPRIZE, challenging privately funded teams to successfully land a robot on the Moon’s surface, and the $10M Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE, challenging teams around the world to create a portable, wireless, Star Trek-inspired medical device that allows you to monitor your health and medical conditions anywhere, anytime. The result? Radical innovation that will help us all live long and prosper.