The Physicians Committee has worked hard to ensure that this new agency prioritizes human, not animal research. Although new text has been added to the bill to support the development of predictive models and animal welfare, there are still many areas where it can be improved to enhance its transformative potential for patients and animals.
ARPA-H is modeled after the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which funds high-risk, high-reward projects. National Institutes of Health (NIH) grants typically target more incremental progress over a longer period of time, while the ARPA-H framework aims to help develop promising biomedical technologies faster and at greater scale. This governance model equips the new agency for robust health research innovation that our country sorely needs in the face of pressing public health issues like COVID-19 and rising rates of dementia. However, it is crucial that we take advantage of this exciting opportunity to overcome barriers to clinical translation caused by outdated and unreliable animal studies.
For ARPA-H to succeed in its goal of driving transformational breakthroughs in health, the agency must invest significantly in disease models and technologies based on human, not animal, biology. For example, microphysiological systems, or “tissue chips,” use human-derived cells in a USB key-sized chip to mimic the structure and function of human tissue. In 2012, DARPA began investing in this technology because of its potential to develop and test countermeasures to biological threats with greater speed and accuracy than typical animal-based approaches. Nearly a decade later, tissue chip technologies are commercialized and readily available as predictive tools for use in drug development, disease modeling, and personalized medicine. They can emulate a wide variety of human organs, including the brain, lung, heart, liverand intestineand the cell types of various organs can be configured together to observe complex inter-organ effects.
Inside the Bill
Also called ARPA-H, HR 5585 significantly establishes the new agency within the Department of Health and Human Services, not the NIH, as noted in some previous versions of the bill. The NIH has a poor track record of reducing and replacing animal testing. The Physicians’ Committee has consistently advocated for the establishment of ARPA-H independently of the NIH to ensure a culture of innovation that moves medical research away from reliance on animals.
The House’s final version of ARPA-H states that the new agency should achieve its goals by “developing new capabilities, advanced computing tools, predictive models, or analytical techniques.” This language, which was not included in previous versions of the bill, is important because human-specific non-animal models are more predictive of human outcomes than using animals, and they include computational tools . But the bill does not specify that ARPA-H should achieve its goals by developing non-animal models specific to humans. Thus, the Physicians Committee urges the Senate to strengthen the bill here by being explicit about the use of non-animal models.
ARPA-H outlines the duties of program managers — the personnel responsible for establishing agency goals and selecting projects for funding. In previous versions of the bill, there was no mention of animals, but here program managers are responsible for ensuring that animal studies meet the same federal requirements for animal research. that govern research at the NIH and that the proposals appropriately justify the number of animals used. Again, this is a step in the right direction as it implicitly recognizes the moral obligation of researchers to protect animals. The Physicians Committee will continue to advocate for ARPA-H program managers to select projects based on their relevance to human biology and their minimization or elimination of animal use.
Another promising language of ARPA-H includes efforts to recruit and retain a diverse workforce. Prioritizing human research would not only reduce the use of animals, but also help address funding biases that disadvantage black scientists, who are more likely to propose research on subjects with lower reward ratessuch as research involving human subjects.
Taken as a whole, the House version of ARPA-H makes promising advances, including independence from the NIH, explicit mention of predictive and computational models, animal welfare, and the diversity of the workforce. The Senate now has the opportunity to strengthen the bill even further by including provisions that prioritize non-animal and human-based research. If it can do this, this exciting new agency holds great potential to improve human health research and reduce the research enterprise’s reliance on animals. The Physicians Committee will continue to urge Congress to make these important changes.