Weeks before President-Elect Obama’s choice for Secretary of Defense was finalized, the U.S. Department of Defense was blazing full speed ahead. The Defense Threat Reduction Agency (a division of the D.O.D.) recently awarded a contract to GE Global Research, the technology development branch of the mammoth General Electric Company, for a two-year, $1.1 million project to develop a Biotic Man. In partnership with the Transformational Medical Technologies Initiative (TMTI), GE is undertaking development of the first physiologically based “virtual human,” a computer model that will mimic the impact of disease, infection, bacteria and other unpleasant agents on the human body and simulate the effects of new drugs (anti-virals, antibacterials, etc.) that combat those illnesses.

GE Global Research has already developed a less sophisticated, though tongue-twisting, software program called Physiologically Based Pharmacokinetic (PBPK), which measures drug response in the body far faster than clinical trials can. The new project will advance this product.
The Department of Defense is interested because it hopes that the endeavor will promote and help develop dramatically fast-acting drugs, which could be put to use during armed conflicts or in the event of biological warfare, where a fast recovery can often mean the difference between life and death. In this new era of biological and other types of untested warfare, having the right medicines developed, and developed quickly, is a national security issue.

While the Biotic Man is “all about speed,” as one researcher put it, it is equally about accuracy and thoroughness. For example, the new PBPK will be able to simulate the physiological changes in a person that has suffered from burns, trauma, or recent surgery, so scientists can record how specific drugs react when subjected to a myriad of conditions.

Having an advanced computer model at hand will allow for safer, faster research. It will also identify drug failures before they ever reach a human guinea pig. As an added bonus, the more effective scientists are able to make their trials, the less costly drug testing (and drugs) will become in the long run. “The goal is to enable faster development of drugs to respond to new biological threats,” said John Graf, Principal Investigator on the project for GE Global Research. “This new software tool also could have broad impact across the pharmaceutical industry, helping to accelerate efforts to develop new drug remedies at substantially reduced costs.”