CDC, NIH, biomed researchers prepare for sequester cuts

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The biomedical research community is bracing for funding cuts, as federal sequestration forces the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to decrease its $30 billion budget by 5 percent.

NIH director Francis Collins, MD, said recently that the agency will try “prioritize to things that seem most promising, most critical to public health, but there’s no question there will be across-the-board damage to virtually everything.”

Medical research centers across the country say they are preparing for funding declines, in addition to even more competition for grants, after what has already has been a stagnation in NIH funding over the past decade — it’s budget growing only from $27 billion in the early 2000s to $30 billion today

The University of California San Francisco, the nation’s largest recipient of NIH funding with about $530 million last year, expects to lose $30 million this year, and says certain projects have already been delayed and some labs have instituted hiring freezes.

“Scientific research laboratories are in many ways more akin to small businesses than they are some big massive endeavor,” UCSF vice chancellor for research Keith Yamamoto told KQED. “Even a modest cut has an immediate impact.”

UCSF is one of several medical research centers in the country working on the frontiers of translational medicine. Among a recent batch of NIH grants for so-called high risk, high reward projects include investigations of the molecular determinants of targeted cancer therapies, an “interactome” atlas showing how proteins interact with each other and affect biological events, and an engineering project that aims to produce human blood from blood vessel-derived stem cells.

As the Obama Administration implements the remainder of the Affordable Care Act and devotes considerable resources to it, researchers and advocates are pointing out that declines in basic science funding might, in the long run, slow the development of therapies for many of the chronic conditions and cancers that are driving healthcare spending.

“Cutting American health research will harm the world,” the Economist magazine wrote, although
Chinese health sciences research funding has surged over the past decade and in several years is likely to surpass the U.S.’s annual total public and private medical research spending of $140 billion. (China’s Beijing Genomics Institute in particular has been helping bring down the cost of individual genome sequencing).

In addition to research, the sequester may impact several areas of public health. The National Science Foundation, the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would combined lose about $800 million. The CDC alone stands to lose 2,000 disease trackers — which “might not become apparent until the next time Salmonella poisons peanut butter,” as an editorial in the journal Nature noted.

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