Rapidly determining exposure to weaponized infectious
agents, chemicals, or radiation is one of the greatest challenges of force
protection and homeland security.
Researchers from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, working with academic
and industry partners, are working on new methods of finding molecular
signatures in blood that can identify exposures and the time of exposure. They are
also developing field-deployable instruments that can perform these sensitive diagnostic
“The human body logs exposures in a rich biographical record
that we carry around with us in our epigenomes,” says Stuart Sealfon, MD,
Professor of Neurology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.
Sealfon is the Principal Investigator on the 4-year research
project funded by the the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Epigenetic
Characterization and Observation (ECHO) program.
“The ECHO technology we’re developing will enable us to
quickly read someone’s epigenome from a small amount of blood and measure any
changes in the cells to accurately predict exposure to hazardous agents or
materials,” noted Sealfon.
The researchers will focus on creating advanced microfluidic
instrumentation with a reduced footprint that can be easily deployed and moved
around battlefields for the sequencing and analysis of human cells. “This level
of portability could enhance the military’s ability to conduct timely
surveillance of emerging threats around the world where U.S. troops or our
allies are actively engaged,” he says.
It could also make a difference by ensuring that medical
countermeasures are undertaken when soldiers encounter hazardous nerve agents,
such as sarin and VX, or other toxic agents, such as phosgene and chlorine.
Mount Sinai will draw on its considerable experience in the
fields of genomics, proteomics, and epigenomics over the course of the research
project. In order to detect epigenetic markers in small amounts of blood, the
researchers will also leverage their strengths in the rapidly unfolding science
of single cell biology.
“My laboratory is an integrated computational and
experimental group with cell biologists, molecular biologists, computer
scientists bioinformaticists, physicists, mathematic modelers, and database
developers,” Dr. Sealfon says. “We are also fortunate to have outstanding
collaborators within Mount Sinai—including Robert
Sebra, PhD, Associate Professor, Department of Genetics and Genomic
Sciences, and his lab—and from outside laboratories, since that gives us a
broader range of expertise.”
Defense security is only one aspect of the project funded by
DARPA. Just as important, according to Dr. Sealfon, is the potential
application of ECHO technology in general medicine. “It could be valuable in
the field of infectious disease, for example, to quickly and reliably predict
if someone has a bacterial or viral infection during the influenza season,
giving patients a point-of-care benefit,” he says.
Another possible outgrowth of the DARPA work is the
development of basic research instruments that could generate epigenetic data
on single cells within minutes. “It’s likely that medical applications from
this research program will be realized in a shorter time frame than those on the
military side, which are more demanding,” Dr. Sealfon says. “This may result,
for example, in the next-generation sequencing technology making many of the
genomic analyses we now do much faster, easier, and more accessible.”