The Biden administration on Wednesday announced it will bankroll a $24 million project to develop mRNA platforms that “train the immune system” to fight cancer and other diseases.
It is the first research funding awarded by the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, or ARPA-H, which the administration created last year to accelerate “high-risk, high-reward” biomedical research, modeled after the U.S. military’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA.
A team at Emory University in Georgia will lead a three-year project to create “a toolbox of mRNA and related technologies that could be used to ‘turn on’ helpful immune responses like prompting immune cells to target and attack tumors,” the administration said in its press release.
The White House also touted the project — dubbed CUREIT (“Curing the Uncurable via RNA-Encoded Immunogene Tuning”) — as having wide potential to treat autoimmune disorders and infectious diseases and to aid in transplants.
CUREIT’s launch is part of Biden’s “cancer moonshot,” a plan that seeks to cut cancer deaths in half by 2047 by funding “breakthrough” biotech innovations — not, critics note, by addressing cancer’s many environmental causes.
In his announcement Wednesday, Biden hailed the “success” of the mRNA technology in the COVID-19 vaccines, which he claimed had “saved millions of lives around the world.” He predicted the technology would “transform the fight against cancer and other difficult diagnoses.”
Biden also underscored the role of DARPA in creating the technologies. “These therapies, which were kickstarted by American scientists at DARPA, represent the power of American ingenuity and innovation,” he said.
Wednesday’s announcement comes on the heels of ARPA-H’s launch last month of its other cancer-focused initiative, the Precision Surgical Interventions program.
No awards have yet been made under that project, but ARPA-H is hosting an event in Chicago in September for interested researchers in order to quickly identify and approve projects.
ARPA-H merges ‘national security’ with ‘health security’
ARPA-H and the Cancer Moonshot are both part of the so-called “unity agenda” that Biden announced during his 2022 State of the Union address. He proposed to bring the country together on issues with bipartisan appeal, such as fighting cancer, making mental health services more accessible and supporting veterans.
Since Biden’s first major address to Congress in April 2021, where he called to “end cancer as we know it,” the administration has promoted ARPA-H as a new “health DARPA,” that would seek to develop “innovative” and “breakthrough” treatments for cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and diabetes.
But critics say ARPA-H’s promises to address major public health issues conceal a dangerous agenda.
When Biden announced plans to launch ARPA-H, investigative journalist Whitney Webb wrote:
“Far from ‘ending cancer’ in the way most Americans might envision it, the proposed agency would merge ‘national security’ with ‘health security’ in such a way as to use both physical and mental health ‘warning signs’ to prevent outbreaks of disease or violence before they occur.
“Such a system is a recipe for a technocratic ‘pre-crime’ organization with the potential to criminalize both mental and physical illness as well as ‘wrongthink.’”
ARPA-H is funding and promoting the same cancer gene therapy technologies the mRNA vaccine-producing Big Pharma companies have been attempting for years, Webb wrote, and have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into research.
Commenting on ARPA-H, Derrick Broze wrote, “The idea that research which has been deemed ‘high-risk’ is moving ‘too slow and conservative’ might cause fear in some readers, especially after the last 2 years of trying to get to the bottom of Gain-of-Function research.”
The German company has been developing that research for nearly a decade and has 14 mRNA cancer therapies in its pipeline.
BioNTech also is collaborating with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to create mRNA-based treatments for tuberculosis and HIV.
And Moderna is in the final stage of development with a cancer vaccine designed to be used in tandem with Merck’s immunotherapy Keytruda, STAT News reported.
ARPA-H Director Renee Wegrzyn, Ph.D., justified the agency’s focus on this research, telling STAT that ARPA-H had a unique position relative to these companies because it can fund the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to support its priorities.
“We want to get creative with this authority,” Wegrzyn said she told the FDA, and suggested thinking of ways to incentivize industry to work with the federal government “not just financially.” Wegrzyn asked, “Can we make efficiencies in the regulatory system?”
ARPA-H was launched in 2022 by the Biden administration with $2.5 billion in funding. It is part of the National Institutes of Health and meant to create “a DARPA-like culture” there to drive biomedical advances, according to the White House press release announcing the agency’s inauguration.
But the idea was first proposed under the Trump administration by former vice chairman of General Electric and Chairman of NBC Universal Robert Wright and former director of the DARPA Biological Technologies Office Geoffrey Ling as a plan to create a “health DARPA, or ‘HARPA.’”
That version also proposed to fund biotech solutions for incurable diseases and develop ways to monitor Americans for “neuropsychiatric” warning signs. Program proposals included a focus on wearable technology that would provide health benefits while collecting massive amounts of data.
But the ideas behind ARPA-H go back even further. In 2014, DARPA announced the launch of the Biological Technologies Office with the aim to “merge biology, engineering and computer science to harness the power of natural systems for national security.”
By 2016, elements of this plan had morphed into the Health Advanced Research Projects Agency, or HARPA, ARPA-H’s predecessor, which pushed for “advancements in biotechnology, supercomputing, big data and artificial intelligence” to accomplish its goals.
ARPA-H named four initial focus areas for investment last year that included “health science futures,” “scalable solutions,” “proactive health” and “resilient systems.”
Within those areas, it plans to fund a broad range of research that includes the development of the Internet of Bodies, genetic engineering, vaccines and artificial intelligence-enabled health surveillance and data collection.
In addition to the cancer research initiatives, ARPA-H also launched a Digital Health Security project, also known as Digiheals, seeking proposals for projects on cybersecurity and health-related devices.
Projects will be selected in the coming months.