The Government Plan to Build Radiation-Proof CRISPR Soldiers
A DARPA project aims to temporarily alter human genes, and shield people from deadly radiation exposure
In the early morning hours of April 26, 1986, the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine exploded, releasing a cloud of toxic fumes and radioactive particles. The fire burned for 10 days, as hundreds of plant staff, firefighters, and emergency responders desperately worked, often without proper safety equipment, to quench the blaze.
Of those, 134 people were eventually diagnosed with acute radiation syndrome, the illness that occurs when a person is exposed to a high dose of radiation across the entire body in a short period of time. Though Chernobyl’s total death toll is still disputed, it has been conclusively documented that 28 first responders died in the three months after the accident from radiation exposure.
In the decades since the Chernobyl disaster, treatment for acute radiation syndrome has remained much the same — supportive care designed to help the body withstand the toxicity of radiation — despite billions of dollars of public investment into medical countermeasures. But an ambitious U.S. government project could change that. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which develops cutting-edge technology for the military, is funding a team of researchers to develop a temporary, reversible radiation countermeasure that uses the gene-editing tool CRISPR. Akin to a vaccine, scientists are trying to produce a genetic medicine that is able to ramp up the body’s natural defenses before and after a person is exposed to radiation.
Researchers will use a modified form of CRISPR that can turn genes on and off without changing the DNA code itself.
CRISPR is a technique that enables scientists to cut, edit, or replace DNA, as if making revisions in a word processing document. But DARPA wanted an intervention that could protect against radiation without making permanent changes to a healthy person’s genome. “We can’t take the risk of permanently modifying the DNA,” DARPA program manager Renee Wegrzyn tells OneZero.