BY: KAROUN CHAHINIAN
Imagine being a dirty, diseased rat that runs through sewers, filthy streets, and the grimiest corners in cities. You might put on a face of disgust or a quick and definite “no,” which is understandable when thinking about their poop-infested homes and how thoroughly hated they are by pretty much everybody.
However, according to a study by mBio which took place last year, the average rat in New York City—the city with the highest rat population in the world—carries dozens of pathogens, some which are potentially fatal to humans, while others are completely new to science. The incredible mystery behind these unappealing rodents is that they are able to carry these viruses without being sick themselves, in fact, they are thriving and infesting cities more than ever.
Sound a little more appealing?
These virus-resistant rats bring up the question of whether or not humans can be equally resistant to illnesses. That possibility sparked research in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the advanced research lab in the Pentagon, which later disclosed that potentially one day, humans may be able to carry diseases and viruses without being personally infected.
Photo: Mauricio Duenas
Although all the detailed research is classified, Colonel Matthew Hepburn, the program manager of DARPA’s Biological Technologies Office, discussed the project vaguely in a recent conference.
“We should look beyond the pathogen—it’s really about the host, and the host’s responses to infection,” said Hepburn. “Rats have all these [pathogens] and they survive just fine— isn’t that a great opportunity for us?”
Hepburn is excited about all the possible successes that can come out of this project and he has every right to be. If this study is successful, humans will be able to co-exist with these once-deadly and dangerous viruses such as Ebola, HIV, Influenza, Malaria and so on, without actually being harmed.
Through genetic analysis of mice, rats, and other animals, DARPA is in the process of figuring out what features these animals possess that immunizes their bodies from diseases, and whether or not those features can be transmitted to humans.
“We’re trying to find—what’s special about the mice, and can we translate it to humans to modulate the host response to infection in times of critical illness?” He said, “Can we make you more mouselike for a short period of time to save your life?”
DARPA’s mission is quite clear, “to make pivotal investments in breakthrough technologies for national security,” and if there is a way to make the threat of dangerous viruses a figment of the past and permanently immunizing the human species, it would be the biggest breakthrough yet.