Illinois throws its hat into the ring for new federal health research agency

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Illinois leaders are making the case that the Chicago area should be home to a new $1 billion federal agency focused on health research.

Fifteen members of the state’s congressional delegation and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot are throwing their support behind the effort to locate the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health in the Chicago area.

“Chicago is a natural fit, with a rapidly growing health care and life sciences sector; world-class research universities; and a talented, diverse workforce,” Lightfoot said in a statement Thursday.

The agency will focus on accelerating biomedical and health research in ways that might be difficult to do through traditional research or research done by companies. It could, for example, work on developing mRNA vaccines to prevent cancers; creating molecular “ZIP codes” that target drugs only to specific tissues and cell types to eliminate serious side effects; and eliminating racial disparities in maternal mortality rates and premature births, according to the White House.

The idea behind the agency is to support research that might not otherwise be done because of high risks, high costs or extended time commitments, among other reasons.

It would be a division of the National Institutes of Health, which is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and was authorized by a bill enacted in March.

The congressmen and congresswomen wrote a letter to federal officials Thursday urging them to consider the Chicago area.

In the letter, they touted Illinois’ central location in the country, its access to big airports, and the fact that it’s home to top research universities, more than 1,700 life sciences companies and major, and ever-growing health systems, such as University of Chicago Medicine and Northwestern Medicine. They also noted that lab and office space rent are lower in Chicago than in cities such as Boston, San Diego and the Bay Area.

“As you work to stand up this agency, we urge you to consider the state of Illinois — and the Chicago area in particular — as an ideal partner to house the geographic footprint, and maximize the research and partnerships impact, of ARPA-H,” the members of Congress wrote.

They also highlighted efforts to improve health equity in Chicago, which had a 30-year gap in life expectancies between the Streeterville neighborhood and Englewood on the South Side, according to a 2019 NYU School of Medicine analysis.

Locating the agency here would “bolster our efforts to minimize negative health outcomes for working families and Illinoisans of color” and “would also boost the local economy, create good-paying local jobs and support some of Illinois’ brightest biomedical professionals while driving investments in our region,” said Gwen Pepin, a spokeswoman for Sen. Tammy Duckworth, in a statement Thursday.

Other states have already raised their hands to be home to the new center. Members of Congress from Georgia wrote a letter to federal officials in June, and Massachusetts began its push for the agency in May.

According to a document put out by the White House: “There is broad agreement that ARPA-H should not be located on the NIH main campus in Bethesda, MD. Physical distance from the main campus will facilitate the development of a distinct culture, as well reinforce the independence of ARPA-H.”

Biden had originally asked for $6.5 billion over three years to fund the agency, but it was ultimately funded at $1 billion over three years. It will be up to the agency’s first director to decide on the location in consultation with the secretary of the U.S. Health and Human Services Department, an HHS spokesman said in an email Thursday.

lschencker@chicagotribune.com

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June 30, 2022 at 06:24PM

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