A Pill Too Bitter to Swallow Budget Cuts Should Not Be Targeting the Vital Research Work of the National Institutes of Health

By Levine, Arthur | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), January 29, 2012 | Go to article overview

A Pill Too Bitter to Swallow Budget Cuts Should Not Be Targeting the Vital Research Work of the National Institutes of Health


Levine, Arthur, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


When the Congressional Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, better known as the "super-committee," ended deliberations in November without a proposal, what remained on the table was a bitter pill: $1.2 trillion in mandatory cuts, half from defense and half from domestic programs, including medical research supported by the National Institutes of Health.

Yet investment in NIH-funded biomedical research over the past 60 years has catalyzed many of the advances that are now helping Americans live longer and healthier lives. The death rate for heart disease is more than 60 percent lower, and the death rate for stroke is 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 greater preventive efforts, better and earlier detection, and more effective treatments.

Studies led by the University of Pittsburgh's own Dr. Bernard Fisher contributed to these advances by showing that the drug tamoxifen substantially reduces the risk of breast cancer in high- risk women who have not yet developed the disease.

In more recent research, the anti-retroviral therapies that have turned HIV/AIDS from a fatal to a chronic condition enable people diagnosed with HIV in their 20s to live -- and work -- until a normal retirement age. And 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. According to NIH director Dr. Francis Collins, the gains in U.S. life expectancy since 1970 are worth some $3.2 trillion annually in enhanced productivity.

In just the past decade at Pitt's School of Medicine, federal funds have supported research demonstrating that an injection of young stem cells makes rapidly aging mice live longer and healthier and that stem cells taken from the fatty tissue of a patient have allowed craniofacial reconstruction in that patient.

It also has allowed the development of brain-computer interface technology that allows users to control prosthetic limbs and computer cursors with their thoughts; the discovery of Merkel cell virus, one of seven known cancer-causing viruses; the invention of desperately needed heart assist devices for babies and small children; and a multitude of other preclinical and clinical advances that promise to deliver better health and well-being for all.

According to the national economic consulting firm Tripp Umbach, federal- and state-funded research conducted in 2009 at the nation's medical schools and teaching hospitals supports nearly 300,000 or one in 500 U. …

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