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Budget Cuts Hit Home; Researchers Share Stories of Staff Cuts, Delayed Science

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – Advocates for federal spending on biomedical research want to put a face on the pain inflicted by the long-term budget cuts and the recent sequestration that have struck the National Institutes of Health.

The 25 percent that has been eroded out of NIH appropriations over the past decade due to inflation, and the $1.6 billion that was hacked from its annual spending this year are "very abstract" numbers, Carrie Wolinetz, president of the group United for Medical Research, said in a conference call yesterday.

"I think it's very difficult for anyone to try and wrap their minds around what that really means in terms of loss to the medical research enterprise," Wolinetz said.

UMR and its partners want the American public to see beyond the numbers. They want people to think about researchers who are on the cusp of biomedical breakthroughs getting laid off, promising cancer research projects stalling out, children with cancer waiting longer for cures, and the US losing its preeminence as the global capital of biomedical innovation.

To relay these mental pictures, UMR yesterday launched a series of researcher 'profiles' that aim to tell the story of how both the slow erosion of federal appropriations for NIH, and the roughly five percent slice to its budget under sequestration have impacted labs around the country.

In the call yesterday, Wolinetz, Rep. Jackie Speier (D – Calif.), and a couple of researchers shared stories and discussed the investigators they profiled as examples of how the shrinking NIH budget is hitting the research community.

"I've never had to lay off a staff scientist – in over 30 years of research," Jake Lusis, director of the Mouse Metabolic Syndrome Phenotype Facility at the University of California, Los Angeles, said in his profile. "But in these past six months, I've had to lay off two people, including one person who's been with us for over 10 years."

Lusis' research is focused on genetic and dietary factors involved in heart disease, and his lab has discovered a bacteria-produced substance that appears to promote heart disease. Now, they are trying to find out more about what this substance is and how it works.

"We're trying to understand how dietary changes and genetic makeup affects the levels of this substance. This could potentially have a huge impact on preventing heart disease."

But he now expects funding for his lab to drop by several hundred thousand dollars, he said, and that is not only leading to layoffs, but also has caused Lusis to reduce the colony of experimental mice he is using in his research and to train fewer graduate students and postdoctoral researchers.

He worries not only about his own research, but about how the tightening funding environment, the dwindling number of grants awarded, and lower pay may be driving young investigators away from working in science.

"When you have to be in the top five to 10 percent of all applicants, and all the applicants are of very high quality, you obviously get a feeling of hopelessness. It's a very dark time for them."
Donald Small, director of the Pediatric Oncology Division at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center, has recently cut three members of his lab staff due to sequestration, has trimmed two slots from his pediatric hematology and oncology training program, and has been spending more time writing and rewriting grants.

Small and his team discovered the FLT3 gene, which plays a role in acute myeloid leukemia, and that discovery has led to a new class of drugs currently in clinical trials that could enable physicians to bypass chemotherapy, but his lab's efforts are being stunted by funding cuts, he said yesterday.

"We lost a major research project grant, had to let go of a very senior postdoctoral fellow, and decided not to take on additional graduate students until additional funding sometime in the future, so this is very much slowing our own research.

After his lab lost an NIH training grant, part of this research had to be put on hold, he said, because he doesn't have enough staff to conduct the experiments. These training grants are important because they provide principal investigators the chance to bring in new researchers who can help carry out their experiments while they advance their own scientific educations and careers.

"This [project] could've helped with the progress to improve targeted therapy for leukemia to try to get away from using chemotherapy and all of the bad side effects that come with it," Small said. "What we are doing now is we are choking off the pipeline of people coming up that are the next generation of researchers who are going to take us to the molecular era of therapy for cancers."

At the University of California, San Francisco, Professor Valerie Weaver has seen budget cuts have a similar impact on her cancer research. Weaver has delayed hiring three staff members and was unable to renew contracts for three others. She also has had two postdoctoral students leave to take jobs overseas, which she sees as part of a disturbing trend.

"We are losing bright people. These cuts are killing the spirit of what made this country amazing for science. Five more years of this and you've destroyed the best science community in the world," she said.

She said that at a recent meeting in Hong Kong she heard people discussing the US' loss of leadership as something that is already happening.

She said some foreign institutions see the funding environment as offering "an opportunity to recruit some of the brightest and best to their research programs because they feel the support isn't happening here."

Rep. Speier, who co-chairs the Congressional Biomedical Research Caucus, agreed with Weaver that this aspect of the biomedical research funding environment is a critical one that should be in the foreground. She pointed to NIH's funding of the Human Genome Project and the ensuing investments in genomics as an example of how federal investments in science can work.

These investments have totaled around $18 billion over more than two decades, but they have generated a trillion dollars in economic activity and add an estimated 53,000 direct jobs to the US economy. Those benefits do not even take into account "the breakthroughs in personalized medicine that have occurred because of the sequencing of the human genome," she said.

"When Alzheimer's is cured, when HIV is cured, when MS is cured, I want it to be America that discovers the breakthrough and shares it with the world," she said.

"I couldn't begin to say that we can be certain that we are going to be at the forefront of those cures because of the incredible losses of funding since 2003. … We have been concerned about outsourcing American jobs. We are about to outsource American innovation," Speier said.