A new federal health research agency will set up shop in Cambridge with plans to spend billions of dollars to accelerate breakthroughs to vanquish tough-to cure diseases such as cancers and Alzheimer’s.
The Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, or ARPA-H, said Tuesday that Cambridge will host the agency’s “investor catalyst” hub, which will work with researchers, entrepreneurs, and financiers to speed the transition of basic research into new technologies and medicines. The announcement follows an intense lobbying effort by Governor Maura Healey’s administration and the state’s congressional delegation, as well as local business and academic leaders.
ARPA-H, proposed by the Biden administration to tackle intractable illnesses, will remain headquartered in the Washington, D.C., area, where its parent agency, the Department of Health and Human Services, is located. As part of a “hub-and-spoke” structure, a third hub, in Dallas, will focus on patients’ customer experience.
ARPA-H officials didn’t specify the agency’s funding, but stressed the new program will be a “50-state” effort to jump-start early-stage and applied research programs.
“We want to expand what’s possible,” said ARPA-H director Renee Wegrzyn, who previously worked as a vice president of business development at Boston-based Ginkgo Bioworks.
The new agency is modeled after the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, known as DARPA, the renowned research arm of the Defense Department, where Wegrzyn once worked as a biosecurity program manager. Among other technological advances, DARPA is known for developing the conceptual basis for a communications network that was a precursor to the Internet.
Plans for ARPA-H originally called for one central hub. But that changed after Congress directed ARPA-H, which has a budget of $2.5 billion through fiscal year 2025, to be split up geographically.
The Massachusetts lobbying efforts date back to May 2022, when UMass President Marty Meehan and US Representative Richard Neal convened a group of political, business, and academic leaders at the UMass Club in Boston to pursue ARPA-H. Governor Maura Healey set her administration’s sights on the investor catalyst hub shortly after she took office in January.
“It shows the federal government sees Massachusetts as the model for health care and life sciences,” Healey said in an interview. “We’ve always been ahead of the curve on life sciences and health care and innovative technologies. Right now is a time for us to really drive important breakthroughs.”
A number of civic leaders — including Healey, state Economic Development Secretary Yvonne Hao, and state Health and Human Services Secretary Kate Walsh — convened in late May in Cambridge to make their pitch during an ARPA-H site visit. Executives at Mass General Brigham, including chief innovation officer Chris Coburn and chief information officer Adam Landman, helped design the state’s pitch, and brought in federal contractors Battelle and Bedford-based MITRE Corp. to help. The final proposal was submitted in July.
“We worked really hard to demonstrate the power of ‘Team Massachusetts,’” said Hao, using a favorite catchphrase of Healey’s. “We really tried to show that we have world leaders in every part of health care, world-leading hospitals, venture firms, community health care organizations.”
ARPA-H is leasing space in the CIC building at One Broadway, in the heart of Kendall Square, Hao said.
The office will be home to program managers who identify and direct federal money to promising technologies. Proponents said its location in Cambridge should help ensure local researchers fare well in the upcoming competition for ARPA-H dollars.
Brian Johnson, head of the Massachusetts Medical Device Industry Council, said as many as 100 program managers could work out of the hub eventually.
“Anytime you can win a contract like this and have the federal government say, ‘We want to invest in your ecosystem because you guys are doing it right,’ it’s a massive boon for the region,” Johnson said. “What sets us apart is this story of being able to take new novel technologies across the chasm to a new standard of care.”
The news represented a victory for Neal and Meehan. Neal said he assertively lobbied Xavier Becerra, a former congressional colleague who is now President Biden’s Health and Human Services secretary. The win, Neal added, underscores the fact that Kendall Square is the world’s life science epicenter. And Meehan said he expects some of the research funds to flow to the UMass system, including its flagship campus in Amherst and its medical school in Worcester.
In addition to therapies and medical devices, ARPA-H will seek to develop new ways to diagnose disease and new approaches to medicine and public health to help patients, said Valerie Fleishman, chief innovation officer at the Massachusetts Health & Hospital Association.
Massachusetts, she said, “will be the nexus of the development of [those] health solutions.”
Kendalle Burlin O’Connell, chief executive of the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, noted that cancer and dementia research and drug development — key goals of the new agency — are specialties of the state’s large cluster of hospitals, research labs, and biopharma startups.
“From day one, when he heard of ARPA-H, we knew that Massachusetts would be the best place for a hub,” she said. “This is a testament to the density and robustness of our [life sciences] ecosystem.”