WASHINGTON — President Biden, who outlined a vision for “bold approaches” to fighting cancer and other diseases, announced Monday that he was recruiting Dr. Renee Wegrzyn, a Boston-based biotech executive with government experience, was selected to serve as director of a new federal agency in pursuit of risky, far-reaching ideas that drive biomedical innovation.
Mr. Biden made the announcement at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston on the 60th anniversary of the former president’s “moonshot” speech, which ushered in an era of space travel. He took the opportunity to reiterate his call to “End Cancer As We Know It” – the slogan for his own “Cancer Moonshot” initiative.
“Imagine the possibilities — vaccines that could prevent cancer, as HPV does,” the president said, referring to the human papillomavirus, which can cause cervical cancer and other cancers. “Imagine molecular zip codes that could precisely deliver drugs and gene therapies to the right tissues. Imagine simple blood tests during an annual checkup that could detect cancer early.”
Mr. Biden, whose son Beau died of brain cancer in 2015, has a deep personal commitment to advancing cancer research, and the Kennedy Library was a reminder of that. Another Kennedy, former Senator Edward M. Kennedy, whom Mr. Biden described as “one of my dearest friends,” died in 2009 from the same type of cancer — glioblastoma — as Beau Biden.
Mr. Biden helped create the Cancer Moonshot when he was Vice President. His goal, which he described as “quite feasible,” is to reduce cancer death rates by at least 50 percent over the next 25 years while “converting death sentences into chronic diseases.”
The Biden Presidency
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He proposed the new biomedical research agency earlier this year as part of efforts to revitalize the initiative.
Modeled on the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the new agency is known as the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health. (In Washington argot, where each agency has an acronym, the Defense Research Agency is called DARPA and the Health Agency is ARPA-H.)
The agency aims to be nimble and flexible — a kind of “shark tank” for biomedical research, populated by “brilliant visionary talents” who will invest in untested approaches, knowing that “a significant proportion of projects are likely to fail,” said Dr . Francis Collins, the former director of the National Institutes of Health who now serves as Mr Biden’s acting scientific adviser and helped find the new director.
dr Wegrzyn is vice president of business development at Ginkgo Bioworks and leads innovation at Concentric by Ginkgo, the company’s initiative to promote coronavirus testing and track the spread of the virus. She also worked at DARPA and its sister agency, the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity.
“Some of the problems we face every day — particularly when it comes to health and disease — are so vast that they can seem insurmountable,” said Dr. Wegrzyn in a White House statement. “I’ve seen firsthand the tremendous expertise and energy the US biomedical and biotechnology company can bring to solve some of the toughest challenges in healthcare.”
Congress has approved $1 billion for ARPA-H, which is housed at the National Institutes of Health but reports directly to Xavier Becerra, Secretary of Health and Human Services – an agreement intended to prevent the new agency too busy with the federal bureaucracy. While its director is not a Senate-approved position, Mr. Biden could be pushed back by Republicans, some of whom have argued that the agency is duplicating the NIH’s efforts.
The agency already has an acting associate director, Adam H. Russell, also a DARPA alumnus, who provided the technical infrastructure and other foundations to get the new agency off the ground. dr Collins said Dr. Wegrzyn will start work on October 1st. Her primary goal will be to hire program managers who will bring bold ideas that the agency wants to pursue, and will spend a limited time, perhaps three years, with the agency, he said.
“They’ll arrive, they’ll do a little due diligence, and then they’ll have to get the idea of Dr. suggest Wegrzyn,” said Dr. Collins. “If she says ‘thumbs up,’ they’ll go off with whatever money they can spend to figure out how to put together the right partners to get the job done.”
The emergence of successful new innovations, he said, will take time. But Steve Brozak, an investment banker whose firm WBB Securities specializes in biotechnology, said if the agency is to be a success, Dr. Wegrzyn acted quickly to differentiate their work from the rest of the federal bureaucracy.
“What she needs to do is get a win on the board right away,” he said. “It doesn’t mean money. This means something that can be seen outside of the current paradigm in promoting health care for all.”
Mr. Biden’s selection was commended by Ellen V. Sigal, chair of Friends of Cancer Research, a nonprofit organization that works with industry and government to advance new therapies. Mrs. Sigal called Dr. Wegrzyn “an inspired choice,” adding that “she is a proven innovator and leader who knows science, knows how to make governments work and understands the urgency for patients across the country.”
In addition to announcing his intention to have Dr. Wegrzyn, Mr. Biden on Monday issued an executive order establishing a biotechnology and biomanufacturing initiative that aims to position the United States as a leader in the field and center drug manufacturing in the country. The coronavirus pandemic has exposed critical vulnerabilities in the supply chain for medicines and life-saving therapies.
“The United States has relied heavily on foreign materials for biomanufacturing for too long,” the White House said in a statement, “and our past outsourcing of critical industries, including biotechnology, poses a threat to our ability to access key materials such as including the active pharmaceutical ingredients for life-saving medicines.”