Biden names director of new research agency for biomedical innovation


Dr. Renee Wegrzyn will head ARPA-H, a new agency aimed at tackling 'intractable diseases' such as cancer and diabetes.

President Joe Biden on Sept. 12 announced that he would appoint Dr. Renee Wegrzyn as the first head of a newly created government agency called the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, or ARPA-H.

According to a White House statement introducing Wegrzyn, ARPA-H is "a new agency established to drive biomedical innovation that supports the health of all Americans. On the 60th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's Moonshot speech, Dr. Wegrzyn will join President Biden today at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston as he discusses his bold vision for another American Moonshot: ending cancer as we know it."

The statement said ARPA-H will support and fund efforts to seek cures and medications for "some of the most intractable diseases," including cancer, diabetes, and Alzheimer's disease, using a model similar to the government-led process that created the internet and GPS technology.

"ARPA-H will embrace proven models of tapping talent and expertise from across industry, academia, and government to bring new ideas and approaches, as well as the ability to marshal resources through public-private partnerships," the White House said.

The diseases ARPA-H is being positioned to address affect large numbers of Americans.

According to the National Institutes of Health, approximately 1.9 million people in the United States will be diagnosed with some form of cancer in 2022. The American Diabetes Association notes that as of 2019, 37.3 million Americans, or 11.3% of the population, have diabetes. In 2022, the Alzheimer's Association reports, an estimated 6.5 million Americans over the age of 65 are living with the ailment, and that number is expected to grow significantly over the next few years.

Biden's announcement of Wegrzyn's appointment comes on the 60th anniversary of Kennedy's 1962 speech at Rice University promising that an American would land on the moon within the decade, a promise fulfilled when astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first human being to land there in 1969.

Biden has been a longtime advocate of a "cancer moonshot," a concentrated scientific effort to find a cure for the disease. In former President Barack Obama's final State of the Union address, in 2016, Biden was named the leader of a White House task force on the subject. The year before, Biden's son Beau had died of brain cancer at the age of 46.

Biden proposed ARPA-H in 2021 during his first year in the White House, and Congress has approved the creation of the agency with a $1 billion budget for its first years of operation. ARPA-H will operate under the Department of Health and Human Services.

A fact sheet released by the White House noted that the agency is being modeled after the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA. DARPA was launched in 1958 by President Dwight Eisenhower in response to the successful launch by the Soviet Union of Sputnik, the first artificial earth satellite, in 1957.

The fact sheet said that DARPA organized collaboration between academia, private industry, and government partners to create numerous products and services for which there was not yet necessarily a market. DARPA's work was crucial to the creation of the internet, miniaturization of GPS devices, stealth technology used in military aircraft, and the rapid creation of the Moderna vaccine against COVID-19 in 2020.

The prospect of future health technologies created through ARPA-H has prompted at least 10 states to begin lobbying the federal government for the right to host the agency's headquarters. Democratic and Republican representatives in Congress from many of the states have signed on to the campaigns.

Biden also signed an executive order on Sept. 12 calling for a "whole-of-government approach" to advancing biotechnology and the manufacturing of products related to biotech.

"Biotechnology harnesses the power of biology to create new services and products, which provide opportunities to grow the United States economy and workforce and improve the quality of our lives and the environment," Biden noted in his order.

The administration's support for health science research stands in contrast to the attitude of that of his predecessor, former President Donald Trump.

During his presidency, Trump repeatedly requested budget cuts for government agencies in the scientific field. In his final budget request, sent to Congress in 2020, Trump requested a 7% reduction, totaling $3 billion, in NIH's biomedical research budget.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.