The Biden administration proposed the creation of a high-risk, high-reward disease research agency called the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health to develop breakthrough treatments for cancer and Alzheimer's, an endeavor that the White House said will cost about $6.5 billion.
“We want to be able to continue the basic research that has made America the place to go when it comes to these discoveries, but we want to try to trigger transformation faster,” Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said Thursday. “What we think we can do is help make things cook a lot faster by putting some additional money into that research and development.”
President Joe Biden requested $6.5 billion to be earmarked for the creation of ARPA-H modeled after a similar agency under the Department of Defense called the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA. The new health agency, known as ARPA-H, would focus initially on research and development of treatments for cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and diabetes.
Biden’s budget request stipulated that ARPA-H will be housed within the massive National Institutes of Health rather than as a stand-alone agency, calling into question how the program’s innovative research will be overseen at a conventional scientific research behemoth such as the NIH.
In order to pursue projects that might not have a guaranteed payoff, ARPA-H directors will need more decision-making authority without being encumbered by the government red tape that would slow them down, according to Dr. Michael Stebbins, a geneticist and public policy expert at Harvard University.
“It matters how they do this, and it matters who they’ve hired to do it,” said Stebbins, who was also the assistant director for biotechnology in the Obama White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. “It could be run properly at the NIH, but they'd have to operate in a way that is very different from the way the NIH operates now.”
Like its military counterpart DARPA, the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health would use federal resources to conduct innovative research with the goal of putting forth major breakthroughs. These projects are often deemed high-risk because not all of them pan out for practical use. For instance, some of DARPA’s research projects include hypersonic flight technology that would cut flight time between New York City and Los Angeles to less than 12 minutes and unmanned submarine vessels to search for potential threats.
The Biden administration has not offered more details about the program’s structure, but it is likely to resemble other advanced research programs such as DARPA and the Energy Department’s program, ARPA-E. Jerry Lee, a chemical engineer and former deputy director for cancer research in the White House cancer moonshot task force suggested placing term limits on researchers “because they're already counting down the amount of time that they have at the agency to make an impact.”
“I think that that's a very interesting way of approaching a problem, whether it's Alzheimer's or cancer, because you have that same level of urgency,” said Lee, who was also the deputy director of the National Cancer Institute’s Center for Strategic Scientific Initiatives from 2006 to 2018.
The researchers at ARPA-H would not be able to circumvent the Food and Drug Administration’s oversight before introducing new treatments or therapies. Their findings will have to undergo rigorous clinical testing currently in place for other medical innovations.
Biden’s budget requests for Congress represent his administration’s efforts to undo former President Donald Trump’s cuts to public health and research spending. The Biden administration proposed bumping up the total budget for HHS to $131.7 billion, a 23.5% increase from the 2021 enacted level. Funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, meanwhile, would jump to $8.7 billion, which represents a bump of roughly 22.5% from the previous enacted budget.