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Biden appoints first head of ARPA-H amid agency identity debates

By on September 12, 2022 0

Renee Wegrzyn is a former program officer in DARPA’s Office of Biological Technologies.Credit: Ginkgo Bioworks

US President Joe Biden has chosen Renee Wegrzyn, a biologist and former government scientist, as the first director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H), an agency created by his administration to find innovative solutions to biomedical problems. While the researchers applaud Biden’s choice, they say Wegrzyn will have his work cut out for him as many details about the agency are still in limbo, including how it should be structured and what health issues it faces. should give priority.

“Renee has a rare combination of scientific expertise, practical experience and interpersonal skills that sets her apart as a leader,” says Jennifer Doudna, a biochemist and pioneer in gene editing at the University of California, Berkeley, who served on a bioengineering advisory board with Wegrzyn.

Launched in March with a budget of US$1 billion, ARPA-H aims to shake up the conventional model of funding biomedical research – deemed too slow and conservative in its scope and approach by some critics – by funding research high-risk, high-reward in the life sciences.

The Biden administration intends the agency to emulate the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which has been hailed for helping to rapidly develop technologies such as the internet and stealth anti-radar capabilities. . Unlike agencies such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation – two of America’s largest research funding agencies – DARPA does not fund projects based on a traditional peer review process. . Instead, it relies on agency program managers awarding contracts for risky, rather than incremental, science activities that can be abruptly withdrawn if researchers fail to meet desired milestones.

Wegrzyn spent more than five years working as a program manager at DARPA, where his portfolio included projects that used synthetic biology to fight infectious disease and enhance biosecurity. At the agency, Wegrzyn led its Safe Genes program, a four-year, $65 million initiative to guard against the potential dangers of the CRISPR gene-editing technique. Doudna says Wegrzyn was “good” at bringing together different types of researchers – bioethicists and geneticists – to discuss new and ethically challenging technology.

Since leaving DARPA in 2020, Wegrzyn has served as vice president of Ginkgo Bioworks, a bioengineering company in Boston, Massachusetts. Ginkgo has yet to announce when Wegrzyn will retire.

“I am deeply honored to have the opportunity to shape ARPA-H’s ambitious mission and foster a vision and approach that will improve health outcomes for the American people,” Wegrzyn said in a statement.

Culture is the key

Although ARPA-H will soon have a head, who will likely serve a five-year term, many fundamental details about the agency have yet to be finalized. The US Congress has only allocated the agency $1 billion in 2022 – down from the $6.5 billion requested by Biden last year – and has yet to pass legislation explicitly authorizing its creation. .

Lawmakers have argued over whether the agency should be housed within the NIH, seen as a conservative funder of science, or should be independent of it. Although US Health Secretary Xavier Becerra decided in May that ARPA-H would be part of the NIH, members of Congress are still considering legislation that would make ARPA-H a completely separate entity from the NIH. . Such a bill that has been proposed would house ARPA-H outside of the Washington DC area, where the NIH is located, and prohibit anyone who has worked at the NIH for the past three years from working at the NIH. ARPA-H.

The indecision underscores a key concern about ARPA-H: its culture, says Ezekiel Emanuel, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and a longtime observer of the US biomedical funding landscape. He applauds that Biden chose someone with extensive experience at DARPA, which will help ensure that ARPA-H is not a replica of the NIH. But he hopes Wegrzyn will steer the agency to focus on its mission of prioritizing health over medicine, which means it will fund projects that address the social determinants of health such as inadequate access to health care, affordable housing and education, rather than only supporting the development of drugs and treatments.

Shobita Parthasarathy, a social scientist at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor whose research focuses on equity in biomedical innovation, agrees. She wants equity to be built into ARPA-H from the outset and hopes Wegrzyn will do so by emphasizing community awareness and input, especially from marginalized communities, in determining health issues. to solve.

Mo Khalil, a biomedical engineer at Boston University who worked with Wegrzyn when she was at DARPA, has no doubt she will work to address these concerns. “Renee is a visionary who sees the untapped potential and possibilities of biology as a technology,” he says.