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Fed budget cuts threaten U. health research

Published March 27, 2013 5:00 pm
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

They are breakthroughs that have changed the landscape of medicine, not only in Utah but around the globe: Researchers who identified genes that predispose certain people to breast cancer, scientists who learned how snail venom could be used as a painkiller, specialists who have developed drug therapies that can add years to a cancer patient's life.

The list goes on, and all of these ground-breaking discoveries occurred at the University of Utah. Now, as a result of federal sequestration, we fear we could be telling fewer of these remarkable stories in the future.

Sequestration will cut vital federal funding for medical research. The National Institutes of Health, the world's leading medical grant agency, is losing $1.55 billion of its $31 billion annual budget. That translates to a 5 percent cut to medical research, a reduction that will cause major obstacles for research programs.

Our researchers at the University of Utah are not immune. Some have estimated that Utah may lose at least $19 million in research funding from the NIH at a time when funding from the organization is becoming more and more difficult to obtain.

Research interrupted by budget cuts may mean setbacks for important breakthrough discoveries. It may mean delays in finding a cure for cancer, Alzheimer's or hundreds of other diseases that affect our loved ones and our communities.

In 2012, the University of Utah received NIH grants totaling $139 million. With this money, among other projects, our researchers discovered a gene that contributes to the development of age-related macular degeneration — a leading cause of vision loss.

Our scientists discovered that a simple blood test can identify high-risk patients and encourage them to make lifestyle changes to delay the onset of this problem.

In another department, our scientists developed a mathematical algorithm for acetaminophen (most commonly known as Tylenol) overdose, finding that the pain reliever can be deadly at only five times the recommended dose. The algorithm helps identify which patients can survive an overdose given an antidote, and which require an emergency liver transplant.

We have many important NIH-funded research projects under way and are working diligently to ensure we use our resources efficiently. Like every academic health system in the United States, we depend on federal funds to support our research efforts.

Francis Collins, director of the NIH, has said that federal cuts to medical research constitute a "profound and devastating" blow at a time of unprecedented scientific opportunity — a statement that accurately captures this difficult predicament that threatens future discoveries.

On April 8, thousands of scientists, doctors and patients will gather in Washington, D.C., to hold a rally in support of biomedical research and the NIH. Their message will include questions we should be asking ourselves:

Is this the future we want for science in our country? Will we be able to attract and retain top minds to commit to careers in science and medicine in an environment of uncertainty? Can we afford a delay in essential research that will lead to improved health for us and for future generations?

To address the health challenges of our aging and increasingly diverse population and remain a vibrant force in the global economy, the U.S. needs sustained investment in medical research.

We need a solution that reverses the destructive effects of sequestration and the harmful impact of continued cuts to research programs that benefit all Utahns.

Vivian S. Lee is senior vice president for Health Sciences at the University of Utah, dean of the university's School of Medicine and CEO of University of Utah Health Care.






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