NIH funding is key to the nation’s health
The Kansas City Star
Election-year politics are commanding attention at the moment. Well before November, however, Congress will face an issue that threatens the nation’s health: whether to cut medical research supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Last year’s “Super Committee” offered the promise of a cure for the nation’s ailing economy. When it ended deliberations without a proposal, we were left with a bitter pill: $1.2 trillion in mandatory cuts, half from defense and half from domestic programs, including the NIH.
For millions of Americans and their families who suffer from serious illnesses and conditions, medical research is the beginning of hope. Our nation’s investment in NIH-funded medical research over the past 60 years has catalyzed many of the advances that are now helping Americans live longer and healthier lives.
Because of medical research, the death rate for heart disease is more than 60 percent lower – and the death rate for stroke, 70 percent lower – than in the World War II era. Cancer death rates have dropped 11.4 percent among women and 19.2 percent among men over the past 15 years because of better detection and more effective treatments. A baby born today can look forward to an average life span of nearly 78 years, almost three decades longer than a baby born in 1900.
In 2011 the NIH awarded more than $100 million in research grants to Kansas and close to $500 million to Missouri. At the University of Kansas, NIH-funded researchers are figuring out how to create leukemia therapies using old drugs that are already on the market for treating other diseases. If we are successful, it will save thousands of lives, hundreds of millions of dollars in drug development costs and years in the FDA approval process. NIH funding helped KU researchers discover that an omega-3 fatty acid commonly found in fish oil enhances infant attention and school-age cognitive performance – one reason it’s been added to U.S. baby formulas. And thanks to pioneering research by NIH-funded neuroscientists whose work is leading to greater understanding of the connection between exercise, brain metabolism and Alzheimer’s disease, the University of Kansas earned status as one of only 29 nationally designated Alzheimer’s Disease Centers last year.
The Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce would not be making translational research one of its “Big 5” priorities if KU Medical Center and its partners had not been granted a $20 million Clinical and Translational Science Award from the NIH last year. Translational medicine seeks to speed up the decades-long process of turning basic laboratory discoveries into treatments and cures for patients. Thanks to the NIH investment in local research and health care organizations, our region is now focused on this life-saving endeavor.
Research at medical schools, universities, and teaching hospitals supported by NIH funding creates skilled jobs that generate economic growth. A new study by the economic consulting firm Tripp Umbach found that federal and state-funded research conducted in 2009 at the nation’s medical schools and teaching hospitals supports nearly 300,000 — or 1 in 500 — U.S. jobs and adds nearly $45 billion to the U.S. economy.
Voters understand the importance of a long-term national investment in medical research. According to a new survey conducted for the Association of American Medical Colleges, 62 percent of registered voters oppose significant cuts to medical research to trim the nation’s budget deficit.
We all want to reduce the deficit. But let’s not jeopardize the next generation of cures by cutting funding for medical research.
Barbara F. Atkinson, MD, is Executive Vice Chancellor of the University of Kansas Medical Center. She lives in Gardner, Kan.