Health  |  News & Politics

Will This New Federal Agency Finally Cure Cancer?

ARPA-H is setting up shop in DC.

Among Joe Biden’s more intriguing campaign pitches was that his administration would cure cancer. Now, as part of that lofty effort, a new federal agency is ramping up in DC.

The Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, or ARPA-H, was established last year to facilitate the development of “moonshot” medical breakthroughs. Cancer—which claimed the life of Biden’s son Beau—is just one of the agency’s targets. “If we’re doing our jobs right,” says Renee Wegrzyn, ARPA-H’s first director, “we’re creating moonshots for other diseases as well,” perhaps including diabetes and Alzheimer’s. “Every American is our customer base.”

The new agency, which has $2.5 billion in initial funding, occupies an unusual space in the federal bureaucracy. Inspired by the Defense Department’s DARPA—which pioneered much of the early research behind what became the internet—ARPA-H provides researchers with funding to try to turn their audacious concepts into game-changing innovations. “Ideas so bold,” as Biden put it, that “no one else, not even the private sector, is willing to give them a chance.”

Last fall, the President selected Wegrzyn to lead the new agency, which has been jokingly compared to the reality-TV show Shark Tank. A biomedical scientist, Wegrzyn has been hustling to accomplish the necessities of getting a new federal agency off the ground, such as establishing a strategy for funding projects and meeting with congressional offices to explain the agency’s model.

At the top of that list is hiring a team of program managers, who will be at the center of ARPA-H’s efforts. These leaders will identify potentially transformative health ideas—a cancer vaccine, say, or a new approach to autonomous surgery—and field pitches from researchers who think they have ways to accomplish them. “We look for people who think and act like CEOs,” says Wegrzyn of the program managers, “because their job, once they come in, is that they’re going to solve this problem.”

The agency began soliciting its first set of funding proposals from researchers in March, and it also announced plans to open a headquarters in the Washington area. While the location hasn’t been determined, Wegrzyn’s agency is already ramping up its life­saving efforts. “ARPA-H,” as she recently said, “is officially open for business.”

This article appears in the May 2023 issue of Washingtonian.

Senior Writer

Luke Mullins is a senior writer at Washingtonian magazine focusing on the people and institutions that control the city’s levers of power. He has written about the Koch Brothers’ attempt to take over The Cato Institute, David Gregory’s ouster as moderator of NBC’s Meet the Press, the collapse of Washington’s Metro system, and the conflict that split apart the founders of Politico.