Washington Update: ARPA-H Organizational Structure Established; Initial Leadership Positions Filled

The biomedical research system has historically been supported by two main pillars: fundamental research on the mechanisms of disease, largely funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the pharmaceutical industry, which creates products to treat these conditions. Recent advances in biomedical research and health sciences present an opportunity to change how we understand, prevent, and treat diseases including infectious diseases, Alzheimer’s, and cancer. A major initiative of the Biden Administration, the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H) was established in the fiscal year (FY) 2022 appropriations process to fill this opportunity gap. This new agency provides a mechanism for the federal government to support transformative high-risk, high-reward research to rapidly drive biomedical and health breakthroughs that cannot readily be accomplished through traditional pathways.

On May 25, Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Xavier Becerra named anthropologist Adam H. Russell, D. Phil., as the acting deputy director for ARPA-H. Dr. Russell currently serves as the Chief Scientist at the University of Maryland’s Applied Research Laboratory for Intelligence and Security, and previously served as a program manager for the Intelligence Advanced Research Project Activity (IARPA) and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Dr. Russell brings experience managing portfolios of high-risk, high-impact research and development as well as drawing inspiration from the nimble organizational structures of IARPA and DARPA.

In addition to the appointment of Dr. Russell, HHS Secretary Becerra issued a directive establishing an organizational structure for ARPA-H.  In the establishment notice, HHS provided a structure for ARPA-H that is broader than initially conceived by members of Congress or the Biden Administration.  Some notable elements HHS is seeking to include are focused on bridging clinical care and biomedical research, such as the development of novel therapies and health equity strategies that incorporate clinical practice in real-world settings.

Although ARPA-H is established, there has been debate on whether it will exist as part of the NIH or as an independent health agency. The House recently passed the ARPA-H Act, which provides further direction on the agency’s structure and program directions. If the bill is adopted into law, ARPA-H would exist as a separate entity within HHS, a move that many proponents believe would help ARPA-H develop and maintain an autonomous culture that promotes the high-risk, high-reward research objectives the agency is meant to achieve.

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