President Joe Biden on Monday hit the campaign trail to unveil new initiatives in biotechnology and a leader for a new health research agency key to his “Cancer Moonshot” initiative.
Biden channeled former President John F. Kennedy’s speech 60 years ago aimed at putting a man on the moon during a visit to Boston’s John F. Kennedy Presidential Library. He named longtime biologist Renee Wegrzyn to lead the new Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, which will focus on speeding innovative technologies to market for diseases like cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and infectious diseases.
“When President Kennedy called for a moonshot, we didn’t have all the tools and experience we needed,” he said. “But with our cancer moonshot today, we do.”
Biden also touted the newly enacted health, climate and tax law that the White House expects will save Medicare enrollees thousands of dollars on cancer drugs through a new $2,000 annual out-of-pocket cap in Medicare Part D. The administration cited as an example Janssen’s prostate cancer drug Zytiga, which has an expected out-of-pocket cost of more than $8,000 per year.
“For so many people, one of the first things they think about when they get a diagnosis — how am I going to pay for treatment?” he said, calling the law a “godsend.”
Republicans have accused Biden of hypocrisy over billions of dollars the new law is expected to siphon from the pharmaceutical industry through a process to negotiate prices directly with manufacturers for some high-cost drugs.
The Congressional Budget Office projects the law will prevent 13 out of an expected 1,300 drugs from coming to market over the next 30 years, although it did not speculate on what types of drugs would be impacted and said the prediction comes with uncertainty.
“The socialist scheme he signed into law last month will increase drug costs when they launch, make America more reliant on China’s drug development and manufacturing supply chains, and lead to fewer cures,” House Energy and Commerce ranking Republican Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., said in a statement. “If we are to end cancer as we know it, one fewer cure or treatment is one too many.”
The president also launched a new biotechnology and biomanufacturing initiative as part of Monday’s announcement. Biden said the initiative would boost domestic manufacturing jobs, increase production of critical pharmaceutical ingredients, increase biosecurity and safety initiatives, accelerate renewable energy sources and address other climate concerns.
Biden issued an accompanying executive order directing the Office of Science and Technology Policy to implement biotech and manufacturing plans across the executive branch and launch data initiatives to promote the broader “bioeconomy.”
Wegrzyn marks the second hire for ARPA-H, joining acting Deputy Director Adam Russell.
She is currently vice president of business development at biotech company Ginkgo Bioworks and head of innovation at its applied science and COVID-19 testing offshoot, Concentric. She previously served at the defense and intelligence research agencies that ARPA-H is modeled on, where she led projects on synthetic biology and gene editing.
Even as Congress continues to debate bills to flesh out the agency’s mission and protocols, communities are already lobbying to land the new agency. Key questions — such as where the agency should be located and whether it should be under the National Institutes of Health — remain unresolved.