White House proposes biotech specialist as inaugural ARPA-H director

The White House and Eisenhower Executive Office Building in October 2021. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

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President Biden plans to appoint Renee Wegrzyn as the first director of the new Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, which will spearhead his Cancer Moonshot project, the White House announced Monday.

Wegrzyn, who will start in mid-October, is tasked with shaping ARPA-H‘s research portfolio to develop biomedical innovations preventing, detecting and treating persistent diseases — namely cancer.

She will be the first leader of the health R&D agency, which was proposed formally by President Biden during his March State of the Union address.

The 21st Century Cures Act of 2016 initially funded the Cancer Moonshot, advancing new areas of research, and Biden announced the next phase to start 2022 with the goal of cutting the death rate in half within 25 years. Biden created ARPA-H in March to attract diverse biomedical and health research talent across sectors and form public-private partnerships leading to more impactful, accessible treatments for cancer and other diseases.

The announcement takes place on the 60th anniversary of President Kennedy’s own Moonshot speech and follows the appointment of a number of senior women to leadership roles across federal agencies. Wegrzyn previously worked at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, while Biden’s choice for Office of Science and Technology Policy director, Arati Prabhakar, had served as director of both DARPA and the National Institute for Standards and Technology.

“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 said in a statement. “ARPA-H will create the transformative and collaborative space that is required to support the next generation of moonshots for health, not only for complex diseases like cancer, but also systemic barriers like supply chain gaps and equitable access to breakthrough technologies and cures for everyone.”

Wegrzyn is currently vice president of business development at Ginkgo Bioworks and head of innovation at Concentric by Ginkgo, roles which involve using synthetic biology to outpace infectious diseases like COVID-19 through biomanufacturing, vaccine development and biosurveillance of pathogens.

Before that Wegrzyn was program manager in DARPA’s Biological Technologies Office, where she received the Superior Public Service Medal for her work enhancing biosecurity, promoting public health and supporting the domestic bioeconomy.

Wegrzyn also sat on the National Academies of Science Board on Army Research and Development, as well as scientific advisory boards for Revive & Restore, the Air Force Research Labs, the Nuclear Threat Initiative, and the Innovative Genomics Institute. 

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Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H), Arati Prabhakar, biotechnology, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), IARPA, Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, Joe Biden, National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), Renee Wegrzyn, White House
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