Biden names biotech pro as director of new health research agency in a cancer moonshot speech

Biden names biotech pro as director of new health research agency in a cancer moonshot speech

President Biden on Monday will appoint Dr. Renee Wegrzyn, an experienced biotechnology professional, to lead an agency created in March to “push the limits” of medical health research and innovation.

Mr. Biden will detail Dr. Wegrzyn’s role as the inaugural director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, or ARPA-H, in a speech about his cancer moonshot initiative from Boston. The agency’s portfolio and budget will be focused in part on building programs and technologies that detect, prevent and treat diseases like cancer.

“Cancer not only afflicts Democrats and Republicans, but all Americans,” the White House said in a fact sheet before the speech. “When we come together as a nation around ideas that unite us — like fighting cancer — we can show the world that anything is possible.”

Mr. Biden said Dr. Wegrzyn worked at two institutions that inspired the creation of ARPA-H, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA). She is a vice president of business development at Ginkgo Bioworks and head of innovation at Concentric by Ginkgo, where she specializes in using synthetic biology to combat diseases.

Mr. Biden’s appointment will be one plank of his speech on the cancer moonshot initiative, an effort to cut the U.S. cancer rate by at least 50% over the next 25 years.

Cancer research is personal to Mr. Biden. His son, Beau, died from an aggressive form of brain cancer in 2015.

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Mr. Biden will deliver his speech on the 60th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s moonshot speech to Rice University, where he committed to putting a man on the moon and bringing him back.

“When President Kennedy delivered his Moonshot speech, the United States had the building blocks to know what was possible. However, there were major scientific and societal advances that needed to happen. As a nation, we needed to fully commit to a future in which traveling to the moon was possible – and we did just that,” the White House said. “Today, we have many of the building blocks needed to make significant progress combatting cancer, but we must come together to equitably deliver on this promise.”

Mr. Biden will also sign an executive order on Monday to boost domestic biotechnology and reduce U.S. reliance on foreign biomanufacturing.

The order will help secure U.S. leadership in the development and production of key technologies used in products ranging from jet fuels to pharmaceuticals, officials said.

“The United States really has the best biotechnology innovators in the world,” a senior administration official said. “But we risk falling behind as we did in the semiconductor sector and the advanced telecommunication sector unless we translate biotechnology innovation into economic benefits for all Americans.”

“Other countries, including and especially China are aggressively investing in the sector, which poses risks to US leadership unless we take the kinds of actions that we are with this executive order,” the official said.

Also Monday, Mr. Biden will say his signature tax and climate bill includes provisions that will cut prescription costs for cancer patients; outline efforts by the National Cancer Institute to detect cancer and develop the next generation of cancer researchers; and highlight a Department of Defense program to understand cancers in military members exposed to toxic materials.

Energy and Commerce Committee Republicans said the price-negotiation aspect of Mr. Biden’s signature bill will be self-defeating as drugmakers respond to the threat of government-mandated prices.

“Unfortunately, President Biden’s socialist price controls for prescription drugs will jeopardize this leadership and his own cancer moonshot goals,” said Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington and Brett Guthrie of Kentucky. “The socialist scheme he signed into law last month will increase drug costs when they launch, make America more reliant on China’s drug development and manufacturing supply chains, and lead to fewer cures. If we are to end cancer as we know it, one fewer cure or treatment is one too many.”

• Joseph Clark contributed to this report.