Biden picks Boston biotech executive to lead new biomedical research agency

The agency is supposed to be nimble and flexible — a kind of “Shark Tank” for biomedical research.

Dr. Renee Wegrzyn, President Joe Biden’s pick for director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, smiles as President Biden speaks on the cancer moonshot initiative at the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum, in Boston, on Monday, Sept. 12, 2022. Sarah Silbiger/The New York Times

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden, sketching out a vision for “bold approaches” to fighting cancer and other diseases, announced Monday that he had selected Dr. Renee Wegrzyn, a Boston biotech executive with government experience, as the director of a new federal agency aimed at pursuing risky, far-reaching ideas that will drive biomedical innovation.

President in Boston

Biden made the announcement at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston, on the 60th anniversary of the former president’s “moonshot” speech that ushered in an era of space travel. He used the occasion to reiterate his call to “end cancer as we know it” — the tag line for his own “cancer moonshot” initiative.


Biden, whose son Beau died of brain cancer in 2015, has a deep personal commitment to advancing cancer research.

Biden helped create the cancer moonshot when he was vice president. Its goal, which he described as “completely doable,” is to cut cancer death rates by at least 50% over the next 25 years, while turning “death sentences into chronic diseases.”

He proposed the new biomedical research agency this year as part of an effort to reinvigorate the initiative.

Modeled after the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the new agency is known as the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health.

The agency is supposed to be nimble and flexible — a kind of “Shark Tank” for biomedical research, populated by “brilliant visionary talents” who will invest in untested approaches, knowing that “probably a significant fraction of the projects are going to fail,” said Dr. Francis Collins, the former director of the National Institutes of Health, who now serves as Biden’s acting science adviser and who helped lead the search for the new director.

President Joe Biden speaks to reporters before boarding Air Force One at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, Sept. 12, 2022. – Sarah Silbiger/The New York Times

Wegrzyn is a vice president for business development at Ginkgo Bioworks and the head of innovation at Concentric by Ginkgo, the company’s initiative to advance coronavirus testing and track the spread of the virus. She also worked at DARPA and its sister agency, the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity.


Congress has appropriated $1 billion for ARPA-H, which is housed within the NIH but reports directly to Xavier Becerra, the secretary of health and human services — an arrangement that is intended to keep the new agency from getting too caught up in the federal bureaucracy.

Collins said Wegrzyn will begin work Oct. 1.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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