Since its first emergence in the South China seafood market in Wuhan in December 2019, COVID-19 has spread rapidly and exponentially around the world.
COVID-19, similar to other coronaviruses such as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) CoV and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) CoV, spread via respiratory secretions from an infected person. The outbreak was declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) by WHO on January 31, 2020, and has spread to over 200 countries and territories.
An immediate and accurate diagnosis of active COVID-19 infection is one of the foundations of pandemic control. As of the moment, the diagnosis of covid relies solely on visible symptoms associated with COVID-19 and tests such as chest CT scans and laboratory tests. These laboratory methods used for covid testing include viral tests to determine if you have a current infection using nucleic acid amplification tests (NAATs) and antigen tests. Meanwhile, an antibody test or serology test may disclose if an individual had a past infection.
While these tests impart insights on the infection status, the challenge results from the lack of early detection and host-based diagnostics that can utilize the body’s reaction to disease, providing more accurate information to use for treatment.
In this regard, a more rigorous approach to host-based diagnosis through epigenetic monitoring may yield a warning system and advanced prognosis in the detection and treatment of COVID-19.
Read the original interview here: [ An Early Warning System For Disease: An Interview With DARPA’s Epigenetics Program Manager ]
On DARPA’s Epigenetic and Real-time Monitoring Approaches to COVID-19
In an interview with Dr. Eric Van Gieson, the Epigenetics Program Manager of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), he discussed the technology they are currently developing, which involves analyzing an individual’s epigenome.
In DARPA’s Epigenetic Characterization and Observation (ECHO) project, researchers aim to create technology to allow for the analysis of an individual’s epigenetic ‘fingerprint.’
According to Dr. Gieson, the new technology utilizes our own internal “flight data recorder,” or the epigenome. The epigenome is the collection of the epigenetic marks – the chemical and structural modifications- on the DNA in every cell of your body. Each individual’s epigenome differs from another, even in the same tissue. These differences are more significant in the state of disease, which leads to understanding its mechanisms.
This platform can uncover evidence of exposure events within hours after they happen and long after other physical evidence is gone. By building a better warning system, the insights from early detection can provide potential outcomes on how to treat someone more effectively for diseases such as COVID or even cancer.
“It turns out our bodies are better sensors than anything we can build synthetically to date. For example, we’ve realized that our body’s reaction to an infection happens two or three days before one can even detect the pathogen, so why not use our own body for early detection?” – Dr. Eric Van Gieson
He adds the technology can potentially diagnose an infection 2-3 days earlier than the tests available for diagnosing COVID-19 and other infectious diseases. Not only can it detect infection or exposure early, but we can also prognose the survival of an individual; in a particular disease.
The biological pathways, which he refers to as the expression circuits, can show how the disease works through the network of biological connections within our body. It is also giving the research teams insight to develop therapies further to treat the disease. Understanding how the body reacts to an infection or a threat provides knowledge of how the epigenetic systems work.
“It saves long-term costs and consequences downstream, and it fills the gaps that we have right now for an effective early warning system for different types of diseases and exposures.”, he points out.
The success of this technology may ensure the ability to guide therapy, triage patients, and plan response resources for infectious disease patients (including COVID-19) more efficiently. Thus, giving humanity a better chance for survival against diseases.
- The new technology being developed in the ECHO project utilizes the epigenome to uncover evidence of exposure events within hours after they happen.
- The differences in individuals’ epigenome are more significant in the state of disease, which leads to understanding its mechanisms.
- The detection of infection not dependent upon the disease or other contaminant is present but on the marks to be left in the epigenome.