Dumb budget cuts would slow promising research on flu, cancer, other diseases

Robert McCartney
Columnist February 13, 2013

Few Americans would want their elected representatives to do anything so stupid as slow down medical research that promises to create a universal flu vaccine or find new cures for cancer.

That, however, is precisely what Congress is about to do through the indiscriminate, mandated budget cuts known as sequestration.

Robert McCartney’s column on local issues appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Post’s Metro section. View Archive

“It’ll be beyond ridiculous,” Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, told me Wednesday. “We will lose the opportunity to support some fantastic science.”

Unless our politicians manage to choose between smart spending reductions and dumb ones in the next two weeks, the automatic ax will chop $1.6 billion, or 5.1 percent, from the already underfunded NIH budget.

That’s going to set back U.S. medical research at an especially unfortunate moment. Health specialists say advances in genetics and in technology including brain imaging offer the potential for dramatic breakthroughs.

“For anyone who’s working in biomedical research, there’s never been a time like this,” Collins said. “The opportunities are so exhilarating, and that’s why it’s so frustrating not to be able to take advantage.”

The impact would fall especially heavily in the Washington area, as health science is one of our region’s principal industries. NIH is the second largest employer in Montgomery County, after the public schools. Collins said sequestration could cost the jobs of hundreds of contractors locally as well as thousands of researchers nationwide.

The prospect of across-the-board federal spending cuts, scheduled to take effect March 1, has aroused worry largely over the impact on the Pentagon. But we should pay attention as well to the harm done in other fields, such as medical research.

NIH grants pay for most of the basic research in universities and laboratories across the country. That backing has led to practically every major U.S. medical breakthrough since World War II. Private companies typically won’t invest in such research because it doesn’t promise quick profits.

Already, because of tight budgets over the past decade, NIH grants only one out of six worthy, fully vetted requests for research money. That’s a big drop from the historical average of one in three. With sequestration, it would drop further.

“We’ll lose [research] across a broad range, from cancer, diabetes, heart disease, HIV/AIDS, rare diseases, common diseases, basic science,” Collins said.

One local researcher disappointed by the short funds is Eric Hoffman, director of the Center for Genetic Medicine Research at Children’s National Medical Center in the District.

You’ve heard the word “sequester” mentioned by politicians a lot lately. The Washington Post’s Ed O’Keefe explains what the term means, and why it matters. (The Washington Post)

Because NIH couldn’t afford to make a $10 million grant it had hoped to provide, Hoffman has four underused, high-tech gene sequencing units sitting in his facility. If he had the money to run them, the units would be helping to give a diagnosis to thousands of kids with muscle disease across the nation.

“The NIH, because of looming sequestration, has just backed off. They just say, ‘Our hands are tied.’ There’s no money to do new initiatives. There’s not enough money to do old initiatives,” Hoffman said.

The crunch threatens to cost America its global leadership in world medicine, because countries including Britain, Germany, Japan, China and India are investing more in health research as we cut back. It risks driving an entire generation of young doctors and biologists to go abroad for their studies or leave the field altogether.

When I asked Collins which current research he would be most sorry to sacrifice, he cited work on a universal flu vaccine and cancer treatments.

The hunt for a flu vaccine that a person would take only once – instead of every year – has sped up dramatically in the past five years. With enough money, Collins said, NIH would hope to begin clinical trials in another five to six years.

Instead, he said, “Having this kind of severe stress on resources just slows that down.”

Likewise, NIH has “an incredibly bold and rapid-moving effort” to identify how cells turn cancerous, Collins said.

“It’s possible to look at thousands of cancers and catalogue all the reasons that this disease happens. That gives you a new set of targets for magic-built cancer therapies,” Collins said. “That is a big, complicated, expensive program, and it simply will slow down if we don’t have resources.”

America’s medical scientists have the brains and vision to make life better for all of us, if only our politicians would get out of their way.

I discuss local issues Friday at 8:50 a.m. on WAMU (88.5 FM). For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.

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