The Biden administration’s biomedical and health research initiative should be based in Massachusetts
When it comes to biomedical innovation, game-changing cures and solutions require an ecosystem where program directors can work alongside software companies, biotech startups, medical schools, and commercial industry.
By Marty Meehan and Julie Chen
November 18, 2022
The COVID-19 pandemic was a stark — and painful — reminder that the United States can be counted on to marshal its resources to deliver medical breakthroughs that unlock our understanding of human physiology. The frantic race to develop personal protective equipment, testing, vaccines, and antivirals proved that almost nothing is impossible when harnessing the power of data science, and working across scientific disciplines to save lives. Now, as Congress races to finish its work for the year, one question remains: Will America’s new biomedical innovation center reflect those lessons?
Earlier this year, the Biden administration created ARPA-H, the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, anorganization with a mandate to push the limits of biomedical and health research centered around risk tolerance and a sense of urgency — and not just in the face of once-in-a-century global threats. Modeled on the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA — the Pentagon’s defense innovation arm — the new agency’s purpose is to not onlytreat but also develop cures for diseases from cancer to Alzheimer’s to diabetes.
ARPA-H’s best chance of success rests on it being located not in our country’s political epicenter — Washington, D.C. — but in Massachusetts, the heart of American health and biomedical innovation.
We recognize that our push for Massachusetts may seem self-serving. But to paraphrase a former president, this isn’t about what ARPA-H can do for Massachusetts — rather, what Massachusetts can do for the rest of humanity. After all, in 2013, DARPA’s biomedical division provided $25 million to Massachusetts-based Moderna to pursue messenger RNA-based antibody drugs and vaccines — playing a critical role developing a world-changing, economy-saving COVID vaccine based on technology few researchers would have pursued. Put simply, only Massachusetts has the proven community-based innovation ecosystem model that ARPA-H needs to succeed.
A quarter century ago, the National Academy of Sciences posed a question: “Does NIH Need a DARPA?” At last, Congress answered in the affirmative. But if we’ve learned anything from the past few years, it’s that where we develop those ideas is every bit as critical to their success.