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Mass. business, political leaders ramp up efforts to win new federal health HQ

They are timing the campaign to Biden’s Monday visit to Boston for “cancer moonshot” project.

Kendall Square in Cambridge is the epicenter of the region's life science industry, a key reason local business and political leaders are lobbying the federal government to locate a new health research organization in Greater Boston.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Many of the state’s top business and political leaders are launching a charm offensive to win the headquarters for a new federal biomedical research agency.

Or maybe make that a CHARM offensive.

On Monday, this group of power brokers is announcing the name of the coalition they’ve formed to attract this agency to Massachusetts: The Coalition for Health Advances & Research in Massachusetts (aka CHARM). They also unveiled a website that aims to highlight all the reasons the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, or ARPA-H, should come here — including the concentration of research hospitals, life sciences companies, and top-tier universities in Greater Boston.

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“Other places have one or two things that can make this work,” said Steve Walsh, chief executive of the Massachusetts Hospital & Health Association. “There’s nobody else that has all three.”

While this local group has been active since May, the unveiling of the name and website was intended to coincide with President Biden’s visit on Monday to talk about his revival of the “Cancer Moonshot” project, to significantly reduce the death rates from cancer. Biden sees ARPA-H, which Congress recently funded by including $1 billion in a federal spending bill, as a crucial element of this push.

President Joe Biden arrives to speak with researchers and patients about ARPA-H, a new health research agency that seeks to accelerate progress on curing cancer and other health innovations, in the South Court Auditorium on the White House campus, Friday, March 18, 2022, in Washington.Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

“It seems like the federal government wants to get in the business of taking on the riskiest science,” said Joe Boncore, chief executive of the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council. “That’s what the Commonwealth is known for. That’s what our ecosystem is.”

In addition to cancer, ARPA-H is expected to fund research into a variety of tough-to-cure diseases, including Alzheimer’s and diabetes. The new agency is being modeled after the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which employs about 220 people. It’s unclear how many people will work for ARPA-H, which is expected to be affiliated with the National Institutes of Health. Many of the project managers who will work at ARPA-H are expected to be there on a temporary, rotating basis.

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Representative Richard Neal, the House Ways and Means chairman, said he expects Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, who oversees NIH, to be the key decision maker in terms of where ARPA-H gets physically located. Neal said he’s already spoken to Becerra about the benefits of locating in Massachusetts. Neal noted that the competition is shaping up to be fierce — with bids anticipated from Becerra’s home state of California, and Texas, among others.

Many proponents of ARPA-H in Congress would like to see the agency located far from Washington, D.C., though Maryland politicians have launched a campaign to bring ARPA-H to their home state, where NIH is based.

Neal said he expects the density of venture capital firms in Boston and Cambridge, alongside the universities and biotech firms, should help Massachusetts’ case.

“The galaxy that exists in Massachusetts is really second to none,” Neal said.

CHARM’s steering committee members include the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, the Massachusetts Hospital & Health Association, the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts, the University of Massachusetts, Boston University, Northeastern University, Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Vertex Pharmaceuticals, the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership, the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, as well as representatives from the Baker and Wu administrations.


Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.