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, an organization 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 only treat 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.
As leaders of a premier public research institution that has produced scientific discoveries and a Nobel Prize winner, we have seen firsthand how creating new approaches to solving problems takes more than money. It requires an environment where risk-taking, ideation, repeated failures, and multi-sector collaboration can happen every day. 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. These types of breakthroughs can only be accomplished by building close working relationships with labs and businesses to inform funding ideas.
Home to 18 out of 20 of the largest biotech and pharma companies, 20 million square feet of lab space, more than 100 colleges and universities, and multiple world-class research hospitals, only Massachusetts offers the risk capital and entrepreneurial infrastructure, human capital investment, scientific workforce, and technology concentration.
For instance, advances in robotic surgery often require rapid progress in the fields beyond robotics but also automation, lasers, and of course medical expertise about the surgery itself. Is it possible to reduce a laser down to a certain size? Are the obstacles facing robotic-arm precision matters of physics or a lack of imagination? These are questions program managers can not only pose but get answers to within a mile radius in Cambridge’s Kendall Square.
We saw this dynamic play out recently when investigators from multiple universities and businesses worked together on the $1.5 billion Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics. These groups worked side by side to make millions of fast, accurate, at-home COVID tests available to the public quickly, particularly to those individuals most susceptible to the virus. The return to normal life depended on these experts’ ability to simplify and accelerate the process, allowing tests to be deployed in the field on a massive scale.
Little wonder Matt Hepburn, the former vaccine development lead for “Operation Warp Speed” and now White House pandemic preparedness head, recently praised RADx’s “real time” model for innovation that the Biden administration hopes to replicate.
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.
Marty Meehan is president of the University of Massachusetts and represented Massachusetts’ Fifth Congressional District from 1993 to 2007. Julie Chen is chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Lowell.