At the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, we
shudder at the thought of congressional budget cuts to the
National Institutes of Health. Funding reductions for biomedical
research could radically stunt discoveries that would mean a
vastly improved quality of life for all of us.
The kicker in this situation is that, in making our case to
Washington lawmakers, it's impossible to say what cures or
breakthroughs won't be discovered if the NIH runs out of money.
In a recent journal article, Dr. Samuel O. Thier, president of
Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, recalled that in the
1970s he deemed the establishment of the National Cancer
Institute to be an enormous waste of resources.
"What actually happened was that scientists were drawn into
cancer research and began to ask questions that were at least
remotely related to cancer," he wrote. "If one looks at what has
been learned since then about oncogenic viruses, about oncogenes,
about the regulation of cell growth and its importance in
abnormal cell growth, one can see that the whole paradigm of the
control of cancer has shifted dramatically within 15-20 years."
Squandering of resources? To the vast number of cancer
patients who are staying healthier longer and enjoying prolonged
lives, I don't think so.
Thier refers to the "feedback loop" of biomedical research.
For example, the success of vaccines led to the development of
the science of immunology. Studies in that field led to better
vaccines, which led to better control over viruses through
mechanisms we were able to pinpoint.
Many of you have read about the exciting possibilities of gene
therapy, where a defective gene in an individual that codes for a
disease can be replaced with a healthy gene. As Thier points out,
freeing a patient from a devastating illness is a thrill in
itself. But he predicts that "when we begin somatic cell gene
therapy by placing the gene into the cell, and the gene replaces
the missing or damaged product, numerous other unexpected effects
Without the clinical investigator who is supported by research
grants, "who will be there to observe these events and recognize
their enormous importance for biology. . .the relevant questions
that feed back into the biomedical system will not be asked,"
Forget the unimagined possibilities for the moment. According
to NIH Director Harold Varmus, a Nobel laureate in his own right,
during the past year there have been breakthrough discoveries in
identifying genetic predispositions for breast and colon cancer.
Researchers discovered that the drug zidovudine (AZT) can prevent
the transmission of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) between a
pregnant mother and her child. A new treatment was discovered for
sickle cell disease, and new information emerged regarding the
potential of protease inhibitors to vastly improve treatment for
Scientists also found evidence that a naturally occurring
peptide could scotch the metastatic growth of cancerous tumor
Because it is impossible to quantify in advance the outcomes
of biomedical research, it sometimes is hard on Capitol Hill to
defend the expenditures. As Dr. Herbert Pardes of Columbia
University wrote last year, "the United States leads the world in
biomedical research, biotechnology and psychopharmaceutical
development. . .(while) the nation has handed over leadership in
many industries, including the automobile industry, the steel
industry, the consumer electronics industry and others." It would
be a real shame to also lose our excellence in this realm.
Threats to slash NIH funding, and health care reform activity
in general, already are having profound effects. According to the
Jan. 28 issue of the journal Lancet, the NIH has shed about 2,000
positions in its in-house research program since 1993, and
further reductions are planned. …