DARPA Wants To Figure Out How We Can Shrug Off Disease

Why are some animals naturally more tolerant to infection than others?

lab mouse
The Long-Suffering Lab Mouse
Guess who gets infected when we study disease toleranceOak Ridge National Laboratory

When some people get infections, their bodies just batten down the hatches and avoid the storm brought on by their microscopic invaders. Researchers want to know why.

A team lead by Harvard researchers and funded by DARPA is going to spend around $10,000,000 to figure out how some animals become more tolerant to diseases than others. Then, they're going to see if they can impart that tolerance onto other animals.

Tolerance has been studied for decades in plants, but work has only very recently begun looking at tolerance in animals, according to a review published in Science by in 2012.

Tolerant mice
The difference between healthy, sick, resistant, and tolerance miceDARPA

Animals have three ways to protect themselves from disease; avoidance, resistance, and tolerance. Avoidance is exactly what it sounds like: I, and many other animals, will avoid meat that smells like death, for example. Resistance is run by the immune system: if I get an infection, my body will run a fever and try and get rid of the foreign visitors however it can. Tolerance, on the other hand, means the body does damage control instead of killing the pathogens. More tolerant animals won't face severe symptoms, even if they have lots of bad stuff in their body, because their body has figured out a way to keep the cells and tissues from being damaged.

The Technologies for Host Resilience or "THoR" team will first pinpoint which animals in a population are disease-tolerant; then figure out the mechanisms those animals' bodies use to avoid the worst of the disease; and finally see if those mechanisms can be recreated in non-tolerant animals.