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.