USA – US President Joe Biden has selected Renee Wegrzyn, a biologist and former government scientist, as the inaugural director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H).

Although ARPA-H will soon have a leader, who will probably serve a five-year term, many foundational details about the agency are yet to be finalized.

ARPA-H is an agency created by his administration to find innovative solutions to biomedical problems.

Lawmakers have been sparring over whether the agency should be housed in the NIH, viewed as a conservative funder of science, or 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 mulling legislation that would make ARPA-H a completely separate entity.

One such bill that has been proposed would house ARPA-H outside the Washington DC area, where the NIH is located, and would bar any person who had worked at the NIH in the past three years from working at ARPA-H.

Although researchers applaud Biden’s choice, they say that Wegrzyn will have her work cut out, because many details about the agency are still in limbo, including how it should be structured and what health issues it should prioritize.

Launched in March with a US$1 billion budget, 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 high-risk, high-reward research in the life sciences.

The Biden administration intends the agency to emulate the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which has been lauded for helping to rapidly develop technologies such as the Internet and radar-evading stealth capabilities.

In contrast to established federal agencies such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation, two of the largest US research-funding agencies — DARPA does not fund projects on the basis of a standard peer-review process.

Instead, it relies on agency program managers who award contracts that support risky, rather than incremental, science — and that can be abruptly withdrawn if researchers don’t meet desired milestones.

Wegrzyn’s track record

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

Wegrzyn spent more than five years working as a program manager at DARPA, where her portfolio included projects that used synthetic biology to counter infectious disease and bolster biosecurity.

At the agency, Wegrzyn led its Safe Genes program, a four-year, US$65-million initiative aimed at safeguarding against the potential dangers of the gene-editing technique CRISPR.

Doudna says that Wegrzyn was “gifted” at bringing different types of researchers to the table — bioethicists and geneticists alike — to discuss a new and ethically challenging technology.

Since leaving DARPA in 2020, Wegrzyn has served as a vice-president at Ginkgo Bioworks, a bio-engineering company in Boston, Massachusetts. Ginkgo has not yet announced when Wegrzyn will step down.

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.

The US Congress allocated the agency only US$1 billion in 2022, rather than the US$6.5 billion that Biden requested last year — and has not yet passed legislation explicitly authorizing its creation.

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