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She will be the first director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, which is tasked with finding innovative ways to defeat cancer.
President Biden has sketched out a vision for a new research agency that undertakes cutting-edge research that could offer high risks and high rewards.
Now, Biden has made his choice to lead the new agency, the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H).
The president selected Renee Wegrzyn to be the agency’s first director. He announced his plan to appoint her on Sept. 12, the 60th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s famous moonshot speech, just as Biden pushed to reinvigorate his own “cancer moonshot.”
She’s currently a vice president of Gingko Bioworks, a biotechnology firm in Boston, and has held key posts in federal research agencies. The White House has hailed her work in studying infectious diseases, biosecurity and gene editing.
In a statement, Wegrzyn said, "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, including President Biden's Cancer Moonshot.”
"Some of the problems we face every day - especially in health and disease - are so large they can seem insurmountable,” Wegrzyn said in the statement. “I have seen firsthand the tremendous expertise and energy the U.S. biomedical and biotechnological enterprise can bring to solve some of the toughest health challenges.”
Wegrzyn has worked at two agencies that have inspired Biden’s new research agency: The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Agency.
At DARPA, Wegrzyn used synthetic biology and gene editing to improve biosecurity and support public health efforts. Since joining Gingko in 2020, Wegrzyn has helped develop the company’s pipeline for biosecurity and develop new tools to attack infectious diseases, the firm said in a news release.
‘Innovative and practical’
Biden’s son, Beau, died of brain cancer at the age of 46, and the president has been a big booster of cancer research. Biden has said he wants to, at least, see cancer move from a fatal illness to a chronic disease.
In a speech in Boston last week, the president said the new research agency "will have the singular purpose to drive breakthroughs to prevent, detect, and treat including cancer, Alzheimer's, diabetes and other diseases." Biden said he wants “to end cancer as we know it and even cure cancers once and for all.” (Watch video of Biden's speech here; the story continues below the video.)
Science and research advocates praised Wegrzyn’s appointment.
“Dr. Wegrzyn brings an extraordinary breadth and depth of relevant experience,” Mary Woolley, president and CEO of Research!America, said in a statement.
“ARPA-H adds a new dimension to our R&D ecosystem, leveraging every sector within that system to trailblaze crosscutting innovations in the way medical progress is achieved," Woolley said. "This appointment is an important milestone for ARPA-H, for patients, and for the future of health.”
Ezekiel Emanuel, vice provost at the University of Pennsylvania, cited Wegrzyn’s extensive experience at DARPA. He said on Twitter that experience “will help to ensure ARPA-H is not a replica of the NIH. I hope this means the agency will focus on its mission to prioritize health over medicine.” He also said he hoped the new agency would finance projects examining the social determinants of health.
Matt McKnight, general manager for biosecurity at Ginkgo, described Wegrzyn as “a thoughtful, innovative and practical leader.”
"She understands the health innovation ecosystem from every angle—from early-stage research and development to commercialization and community impact, across the public, private, and academic sectors,” McKnight said in a statement. “In her time at Ginkgo, she has been an incredible leader, and her work has shaped the emerging biosecurity industry for years to come.”
Ron DePinho, former president of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, said on Twitter, “Our approach to cancer research must embrace the collaborative, results-oriented approach to research that ARPA-H embodies.”
Alondra Nelson, head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, said Wegrzyn is well-equipped to lead the agency chartered with taking novel approaches to cure cancer and other diseases. Nelson described Wegrzyn as “a leader in biotechnology research and innovation.”
“The success of ARPA-H will require bold independent leadership, and Dr. Wegrzyn has the vision necessary for it to reach its full potential,” Nelson said in a statement.
Focus on equity
The White House has said the new agency would focus on health equity, and projects would be designed with improving healthcare for all. The Biden administration has placed a high priority on reducing disparities in care among underserved groups.
The new research agency will be established as an independent entity within the National Institutes of Health, the federal government’s prime source of funding for medical research. Wegrzyn will report directly to the secretary of health and human services, and not to the director of the NIH.
U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said he was looking forward to working with Wegrzyn. “With Dr. Wegrzyn at the helm, ARPA-H is poised to drive health innovation and launch bold and ambitious research programs,” Becerra said.
Healthcare and research advocates have enthusiastically endorsed ARPA-H, but they have said they don’t want to see the new agency’s funding come at the expense of the National Institutes of Health.
Congress authorized the creation of ARPA-H in the federal spending plan approved in March. The 2022 budget package included $1 billion for the new research agency, which was less than the $6.5 billion Biden initially requested.
Adam H. Russell began serving as the deputy director for ARPA-H in June. Russell was the chief scientist at the University of Maryland's Applied Research Laboratory for Intelligence and Security and has held key roles in federal science agencies.