Jul 5, 2022 - News

Massachusetts sees competition to house ARPA-H

Illustration of a hand holding a microscope slide with a liquid sample forming a dollar sign.

Illustration: Gabriella Turrisi/Axios

Massachusetts has competition in the campaign to host the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H), the new federal agency tasked with making breakthroughs in health care and technology.

  • The agency is expected to focus on innovative solutions, including treatments for diseases such as Alzheimer's, diabetes and Duchenne muscular dystrophy.
  • The House approved a bill creating the $1 billion agency as part of the National Institutes of Health. It still needs Senate approval.

What's happening: Massachusetts' congressional delegation made their pitch to house ARPA-H in a letter in May, citing the state's existing prestigious research universities, hospitals, biotech companies and "unmatched reputation as an idea factory."

  • Meanwhile: Georgia, North Carolina and other states have also thrown their names in to become home to the new facility.
  • The research facility is similar to DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which was founded under the Department of Defense in 1958.

Why it matters: Greater Boston is already known as a life sciences hub, and hosting ARPA-H would foreground the state's biotechs, colleges and health care companies in the federal government's research endeavors.

  • "We have obviously located here the talent, academia, teaching hospitals, one of the largest biotech clusters in the world," says MassBio President Joe Boncore, whose organization is leading efforts to bring the agency to the Bay State. "It's all right here. It's close by, and it's easy to access from Washington, D.C."

Zoom in: The region is home to life sciences companies that are already researching certain diseases, from Cambridge-based Alnylam Pharmaceuticals' work on Alzheimer's to Boston-based Vertex Pharmaceuticals' treatments for cystic fibrosis.

  • Massachusetts is also home to Moderna, one of the three big COVID-19 vaccine makers, though Boncore says that some 90 life sciences companies statewide contributed to the COVID vaccine development, diagnostic and therapeutic efforts.
  • He won't give any hints as to where in Massachusetts he'd like to see the federal agency located, saying it's too early to tell.
  • But he says he isn't ruling out cities outside of Boston or Cambridge, adding that such companies have taken root in Woburn, Worcester and other cities.

What's next: The details of ARPA-H's structure are still in the works, including whether its director needs to be confirmed by the Senate.

  • The agency was formally created and an interim director named last month, but the timeline of a headquarters decision remains unclear.
  • For now, Boncore isn't sweating the competition.

What he's saying: "To be quite honest, they're all competing with Massachusetts. When someone asks where ARPA-H should be located, there's really only one answer, and that's right here in the commonwealth."

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to show that 90 life sciences companies contributed to multiple stages of the COVID vaccine effort. (Not vaccine development specifically).


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