DARPA’S New SHIELD Program Plans to Purge Your Blood of Pathogens, Roomba-Style


Welcome to this week’s installment of The Intelligence Brief… in recent days, DARPA has announced a new program that aims to protect warfighters from bloodstream infections caused by bacterial and fungal agents. This week, we’ll be examining 1) the announcement of the agency’s new SHIELD program, 2) past challenges that inspired the new DARPA initiative, and 3) how they say SHIELD will manage to clean your bloodstream, similar to a Roomba.

Quote of the Week

“If an alien visited Earth, they would take some note of humans, but probably spend most of their time trying to understand the dominant form of life on our planet – microorganisms like bacteria and viruses.”

-Nathan Wolfe

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With all that behind us, it’s time to look at how DARPA plans to produce the first line of defense against bacteria and other pathogens for warfighters who sustain injury on the battlefied with its new SHIELD program.

DARPA Plans to Battle Pathogens with SHIELD

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has revealed a new plan to battle bacterial and fungal pathogens that it says can lead to bloodstream infections (BSI) that pose a common—and potentially deadly—threat to the U.S. military and civilian populations.

Dubbed the Synthetic Hemo-technologIEs that Locate & Disinfect program, or SHIELD, DARPA’s new initiative will help provide preventive treatments for military personnel who have sustained injuries from projectiles, explosives, and other injuries that may result from combat situations.

Military personnel often face a heightened risk from the onset of infection due to various challenges presented in the line of duty. Chiefly, members of the armed forces may not always have access to medical environments where proper diagnosis or administration of medications and treatment can occur in a timely manner.

With its new SHIELD program, DARPA says that some of the potential threats armed services personnel often encounter could be mitigated by providing “combat casualty care post-trauma with the aim to bind, clear, and defeat any fungi and bacteria in a pathogen-agnostic, or broad-spectrum manner before they can become a health risk.”

Preemptive Protection Against Pathogens

The agency says its program will implement therapies that provide single-dose protection that will last for up to a week, which in addition to being easily accessible on the battlefield and able to combat a variety of different recognized bacterial and fungal threats, as well as novel ones.

Past studies have shown that infections resulting from injury on the battlefield have remained a pressing concern for U.S. military personnel. According to a 2007 study on trauma-related infections, casualties resulting from gunshot, shrapnel, and other traumatic injuries, including burns during the invasion of Iraq often led to infectious complications which “have not been described since the 1970s.”

Medics from the 2nd Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron treat wounded Afghan freedom fighters in 2013 (Public Domain).

A similar study from 2018 found that more than 52,000 U.S. military personnel had been wounded in action during the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, and although casualties were overall lower than in past conflicts, survivors sustained injuries that often required more than one surgery, placing them at risk of infections.

Likening SHIELD’s capabilities to “a Roomba-like treatment circulating within your blood,” the agency said in a statement this week that it aims to offer military personnel an array of preventive treatments for such injuries that often give rise to infections, offering preemptive care and protection against potential pathogens.

“Novel therapies would be administered as combat casualty care post-trauma with the aim to bind, clear, and defeat any fungi and bacteria in a pathogen-agnostic, or broad-spectrum manner before they can become a health risk,” the agency said.

Will SHIELD Prevent Serious Infections and Death?

SHIELD program manager Christopher Bettinger, Ph.D., said that SHIELD will be capable of preventing the onset of serious disease or death by creating medical countermeasures that cover a broad array of potential bacterial and fungal pathogens.

Bettinger emphasized the presence of pathogens that are becoming resistant to treatment, citing “an increasing number of pathogenic fungal strains that resist even the most potent anti-fungal compounds as a result of overuse of these compounds in hospitals and agricultural applications.”


DARPA says its new program will be divided into phases that include a proof-of-concept stage, followed by the validation of findings, and a final phase involving animal testing where their survival rates after exposure to fungal and bacterial pathogens are gauged.

The Debrief reached out to the agency for comment on the specific timeframe for implementation of the SHIELD program. According to a DARPA spokesperson, its three phases will be structured as a four-year effort in which “performers will interface with Government Independent Verification and Validation (IV&V) teams to evaluate the safety and validate the efficacy of prophylaxes in multiple different pathogen exposure scenarios and trauma models that mimic the threat environment confronted by warfighters.”

In a statement, Bettinger expressed optimism that once it is underway, SHIELD has the potential to save lives on the battlefield and greatly improve the impact and efficiency of care provided to warfighters in the 21st century.

“If successful,” Bettinger said, “SHIELD could make a huge impact in preventing morbidity and mortality from BSIs.”

That concludes this week’s installment of The Intelligence Brief. You can read past editions of The Intelligence Brief at our website, or if you found this installment online, don’t forget to subscribe and get future email editions from us here. Also, if you have a tip or other information you’d like to send along directly to me, you can email me at micah [@] thedebrief [dot] org, or Tweet at me @MicahHanks.

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