In his biggest speech yet, Biden pitches a new health agency to help ‘end cancer as we know it’

WASHINGTON — In one of the most emotional moments of his first major address to Congress, President Biden on Wednesday called on lawmakers to help him “end cancer as we know it.”

The bold pledge came after Biden gave a high-profile endorsement of his administration’s proposal to create a new biomedical research agency aimed at developing “breakthrough” treatments for conditions including cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and diabetes.

In his address, Biden urged lawmakers to create a new agency within the National Institutes of Health known as the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, modeled after a Pentagon office known as DARPA that has helped to develop technological breakthroughs like the internet and GPS.

“It would have a singular purpose: To develop breakthroughs to prevent, detect, and treat diseases like Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and cancer,” Biden said.

Biden’s remarks echo a recently released budget document calling for Congress to fund $6.5 billion for the agency’s creation. Biden has previously suggested that Eric Lander, the renowned genomics researcher who he has nominated to lead the White House’s science office, would play a major role in the effort.

The president’s prominent mention of the ARPA-H proposal early during his first major address to Congress underscores the administration’s enthusiasm for the project, which would represent one of the biggest increases in U.S. government science research funding in decades.

Biden appealed to both Democrats and Republicans, arguing that no political issue is more bipartisan than curing deadly diseases. He also invoked the 2015 death of his son, former Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden, and lauded Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) for naming a 2016 cancer-research bill in his honor.

“I know nothing that is more bipartisan,” Biden said to a standing ovation from both Democratic and Republican lawmakers. “So let’s end cancer as we know it. It’s within our power — our power to do it.”

Congress’ enthusiastic response bodes well for the project. While it’s not clear whether Biden could unilaterally create a new research agency, there’s no question that spending $6.5 billion on it would require action from Congress.

If lawmakers move forward with Biden’s research funding request, it would give the NIH a larger-than-ever budget of over $51 billion, including the new funds for ARPA-H.

Biden has been active on cancer research issues in particular since Beau Biden’s death in 2015. Soon after, former President Obama appointed him the head of the administration’s “Cancer Moonshot” initiative, and after departing as vice president, Biden soon founded his own cancer-focused nonprofit.

Biden first proposed creating ARPA-H (which has sometimes been referred to as HARPA) on the campaign trail in 2019. The proposal itself, though, is substantially older. It has long enjoyed the backing of prominent scientists including the genomicist Michael Stebbins and former DARPA official Geoffrey Ling, as well as the Suzanne Wright Foundation, a nonprofit founded by former NBC executive Bob Wright, himself a longtime ally of former President Trump.

While the NIH, broadly speaking, is perhaps the most popular agency in Washington among Democrats and Republicans alike, Biden’s ARPA-H proposal reflects a degree of discontent with the pace and purpose of its work.

Both Stebbins and Ling have been outspoken in their view that the NIH, which largely focuses on basic science research, moves too slowly. Despite over $30 billion a year in taxpayer investment, they argue, the agency has little to show for progress on conditions like Alzheimer’s or pancreatic cancer.

The scientists’ prior HARPA proposals have called for creating project managers with term limits and awarding funds via contract as opposed to grants, effectively building in more aggressive benchmarks for what government-funded research should achieve, and how quickly.

Their advocacy, however, has stressed that ARPA-H should be a separate agency from NIH; as Biden’s proposal stands, it would enjoy a relationship comparable to that of DARPA and the Defense Department, which Biden called “semi-independent.”

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