Since its founding in 1958 in response to the USSR's Sputnik launch, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has funded some of the most cutting-edge—and often highly classified—scientific research in the US. Although it is best known for its role in developing the Internet and global positioning systems, DARPA is also home to many biomedical projects, including efforts to treat battlefield injuries and to boost the physiological capacities of soldiers. Previously, health-related research was somewhat dispersed throughout the engineering-focused agency, a division of the US Department of Defense. That all changed in April, when DARPA launched the Biological Technologies Office (BTO).
The man picked to lead the BTO is Geoffrey Ling, a physician-scientist with training in neurology and pharmacology who spent 27 years in the US Army Medical Corps. Ling's research has focused on diagnosing and treating traumatic brain injuries, which he saw firsthand during two combat tours and four research missions in Afghanistan and Iraq. As a DARPA program manager, he is best known for spearheading the Revolutionizing Prosthetics program, which created an advanced prosthetic arm that interfaces with the brain. (This robotic arm won US regulatory approval on 9 May.) Ling spoke with Brendan Borrell about what the BTO will mean for the medical research community. The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
How will putting all of DARPA's biological sciences research under one roof help the agency fulfill its mission?
DARPA likes to invest in fundamental science, but unlike the National Institutes of Health [NIH] or the National Science Foundation [NSF], we don't invest only for the sake of fundamental science. We are an engineering agency. We build things: things that fly, things that swim. We have invested in biology before, but we didn't take a firm grip until the last five or ten years.
The thing that really drove things forward for us was our investment in neurobiology, synthetic biology and infectious disease. We realized that the technology side of things had now advanced to the point that we are able to make meaningful contributions to the study of biology as a means to developing our capabilities.
Tell me more about how DARPA's approach differs from other science funding agencies.
DARPA's model is different, but I think it's complementary. NIH is superwealthy, with $30 billion. Their job is to look at advancing health-related science. NSF has a budget of $7 billion directed towards more fundamental research. DARPA's budget is less than $3 billion, so we try to make in-depth focused investments that will provide capabilities. That means we don't do investigator-initiated research. We aren't a place for failed R01 applications. We are contract driven, and our program managers choose programs to invest in. Instead of having a hundred $100,000 efforts, we have one big $10 million effort, and we want a product that comes out of that.
What do you see as the BTO's role in President Barack Obama's BRAIN Initiative?
The way President Obama articulated it was fabulous. He didn't say, “I'm out to cure brain cancer. I'm out to cure Alzheimer's. I'm out to cure stroke.” No, he said, “We are going to advance brain research through innovative technologies.” That, to me, is really very cool. I like to say that the scientific community does not lack for hypotheses. What they lack are the appropriate tools to validate those hypotheses. DARPA is here to give them the tools. For example, we know that MRI [magnetic resonance imaging] and PET [positron emission tomography] scans cannot diagnose traumatic brain injuries. That screams out that we need some new imaging modalities. Now, if we develop new tools to study the dynamic state of the brain, then I expect different communities will pick them up and run with them.
Do you see any room for improvement in how the BTO gets its inventions into the hands of the public?
We are treading on new ground. The model never existed here to create true public-private partnership at DARPA. At BTO, the vast majority of products are going to have broader applications, and we want to push them out into the community as fast as we can. In the past, if we were planning on buying 30 F-16 airplanes, then we knew that Northrop Grumman [a defense contractor] can make them. But if we come up with a better thermometer, then we are going to want 100,000 of those things, if not a few million, and that requires a very different model.
How have your tours in Afghanistan and Iraq guided your vision for BTO?
It was a life experience. I'm grateful I had the opportunity to go and serve in that capacity. Today, I never question why I do what I do or who I serve: I serve the service member. I make no bones about it. These are the young men and women who have chosen to be the defenders of our society. BTO will serve them not only when they get hurt, but also to make them more efficient and optimize their ability to do their jobs.
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Straight talk with...Geoffrey Ling. Nat Med 20, 570 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1038/nm0614-570