At his State of the Union speech in March, President Joe Biden urged Congress to fund a new federal agency that would “supercharge” breakthrough medical research and “end cancer as we know it.”
Congress responded two weeks later by approving $1 billion for the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, or ARPA-H, which will tackle projects that are seen as too costly, risky or time-intensive for the private sector and traditional public research.
In Maryland, research institutions, labs, pharmaceutical companies and biotech startups have long had a close, symbiotic relationship with the numerous federal health agencies already located here, but federal leaders and lawmakers think it might be time now for some distance.
ARPA-H will be under the National Institutes of Health, which has a sprawling campus in Bethesda where nearly 6,000 scientists work. But the ambitious accelerator program most likely will be located outside that campus — and possibly outside Maryland.
House lawmakers introduced a bill that would prevent ARPA-H from being located on the campus of the NIH. Senate lawmakers went even further with their version of the bill, which would ban ARPA-H from being in “close proximity” to the Washington, D.C., region.
A spokesman for Gov. Larry Hogan said his administration will work with the state’s congressional delegation to make sure that federal lawmakers don’t preclude Maryland from landing ARPA-H.
“We’re very familiar with the project, and there’s no question that Maryland offers an unrivaled life sciences infrastructure that makes it a no-brainer to place it here,” spokesman Michael Ricci said.
Maryland already has a thriving life sciences industry with companies like Catalent, Novavax and MedImmune, and leading research institutions like the Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland system.
James L. Hughes, the senior vice president for economic development for the University of Maryland, Baltimore and president of the university’s BioPark, said he’s been in multiple meetings recently about ARPA-H because it could have a big impact on the university and Maryland’s economy.
“I strongly hope that the final legislation approved does not preclude anywhere in Maryland to be home to ARPA-H,” Hughes said. “I get the idea of having some separation from NIH, but proximity to NIH makes it much more likely ARPA-H is very successful.”
He said university officials and business groups are talking to Maryland’s congressional delegation
“There is growing awareness of it,” Hughes said. “We need to have our voices heard.”
ARPA-H will be modeled on the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, the research wing of the U.S. Department of Defense that was involved in the development of the internet and GPS technology. It has looser guidelines on ordering and canceling contracts than other government agencies.
Stat News reported that lawmakers want a similar nimbleness from ARPA-H and believe the new agency needs independence to be successful, which has led cities and states across the country to jockey for the agency’s headquarters. The Boston Globe reported in May that top political, university and business leaders gathered to discuss how to lure ARPA-H to Boston. A dozen U.S. Representatives from Texas sent a letter to the Department of Health and Human Services earlier this month, urging it to place ARPA-H in the Lone Star state.
The Department of Health and Human Services oversees the NIH and a spokesman for the agency said the decision on where to locate APRA-H will be made jointly by Health Secretary Xavier Becerra and the yet-unnamed director of ARPA-H.
Jeff Galvin said anywhere within the Rockville-Baltimore-Frederick triangle would be a great fit for ARPA-H, especially compared with a place like Boston. Galvin is the CEO of American Gene Technologies, a pharmaceutical startup in Rockville.
“I think it would be crazy to go to a place like Boston,” Galvin said. “You lose the pool of administrative and technical talent which has evolved around the metro D.C. area for evaluating exactly these types of initiatives, and what you gain is added expense because of the overcrowding in that area.”
Companies in Maryland have been pioneering gene and cell therapies, Galvin said, and the area is internationally known for its cutting-edge research. The federal agency could locate in a place like Frederick or Baltimore “so too much of NIH thinking doesn’t pollute the more Wild West, shoot-from-the-hip culture that they want, similar to DARPA.”
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It’s unclear how many jobs would be created by ARPA-H and how much of its money would go toward funding research by private companies or its own in-house studies. The Biden administration initially asked for $6.5 billion before Congress signed off on $1 billion, which must be spent before September 2024.
Unlike some research fields, life sciences research requires physical lab space, pointed out Jonathan Cohen, the CEO of 20/20 GeneSystems, a clinical lab testing company in Rockville.
“Location does matter for these kinds of things,” Cohen said. “There’s a lot of brick and mortar in our industry.”
Montgomery County already has a sizable life sciences industry that’s in close proximity to other federal agencies.
“I think the case for Maryland is very compelling,” Cohen said. “I think it would be great to have it in Maryland.”
Democratic U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin, whose district covers part of the D.C. suburbs, said he’s not backing down on locating the new agency in Maryland.
“Maryland has a history of working successfully with the federal government on complex projects that makes us well-prepared to take on the challenge of building another center of American scientific and medicinal innovation,” Raskin said in a statement. “We are determined to see ARPA-H in Maryland, and as a delegation will continue to advocate to bring ARPA-H to Maryland.”