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RTI International and Collaborators Receive DARPA Award to Develop System for Early Warning of Biological Threats

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. — RTI International, an independent, nonprofit research institute, in collaboration with Duke University and Profusa, an empowered health company, announced a DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) award to develop an early warning detection system for biological attacks and pandemics in the United States. The new system will use personal sensor data to shorten the time to detect respiratory pandemics to up to three weeks earlier than currently available via public health networks.

“The ability to counteract the use of biological weapons is important to the nation’s defense and security,” said Kristin Gilchrist, senior research engineer at RTI. “In addition, naturally occurring respiratory diseases affect broad segments of the population each year. With quicker detection, early countermeasures can help halt the spread of fast-moving pandemics, like influenza.”

Current public health networks track only patients who seek medical care after they are already sick. The RTI solution is based on unobtrusive monitoring of humans before they get sick via monitoring of human physiological responses to respiratory pathogens prior to the onset of visible symptoms. By using wearable, networked sensors in concert with point-of-care, high-throughput diagnostics and automated data collection and reporting, the time to detect a disease outbreak can then be considerably shortened.

With its collaborators, RTI will use a novel combination of heart-rate variability, tissue-integrated oxygen content, and activity level as biomarkers of infection to develop new algorithms for the detection of respiratory infections using machine-learning techniques.

The technology can be scaled to monitor large groups in real-time, providing geospatially referenced information on a biological threat and its spread in urban environments. This dynamic threat-mapping process will enable more effective countermeasures and mitigation strategies than are possible today.

“Our goal is an automated system based on unobtrusive sensors that provide pre-symptomatic detection of illness or respiratory distress to trigger early medical intervention and to identify biological attacks or pandemics via group surveillance—and do it within days, not weeks,” summarized Gilchrist.

This project is part of DARPA’s SIGMA+ program in the Defense Sciences Office (DSO) which began in 2018. For more information, please see https://www.darpa.mil/program/sigma-plus.