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), an agency created by his administration to find innovative solutions to biomedical problems. 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.
“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.
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 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 programme managers who award contracts that support risky, rather than incremental, science — and that can be abruptly withdrawn if researchers don’t meet desired milestones.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 spent more than five years working as a programme 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 programme, a four-year, $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 researcher 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.
Culture is key
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. The US Congress allocated the agency only $1 billion in 2022 — rather than the $6.5 billion that Biden requested last year — and has not yet passed legislation explicitly authorizing its creation.
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.
The indecision underscores a key concern about ARPA-H — and that’s its culture, says Ezekiel Emanuel, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and long-time observer of the US biomedical funding landscape. He applauds Biden choosing someone with extensive experience at DARPA, which will help to ensure that ARPA-H is not a replica of the NIH. But he hopes that Wegrzyn will keep the agency focused on a mission to prioritize health over medicine. This would mean funding projects that address social determinants of health — such as inadequate access to health care, affordable housing and education — rather than supporting solely the development of medicines and treatments.
Shobita Parthasarathy, a social scientist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, whose research focuses on equity in biomedical innovation, agrees. She wants to see equity baked into ARPA-H from the outset, and hopes that Wegrzyn will do this by emphasizing community outreach and input, especially from marginalized communities, to determine which health problems to tackle.
Mo Khalil, a biomedical engineer at Boston University who worked with Wegrzyn when she was at DARPA, has no doubt that she will work to address these concerns. “Renee is a visionary in seeing the untapped potential and possibilities that biology as a technology affords,” he says.