Message to Congress: Restoring National Institutes of Health Funding Should Be Top Priority

Posted February 4, 2015 at 3:26pm

Cracking the genetic code is arguably the greatest life science research triumph of the last century. Thanks to our country’s investments in basic and clinical research over several decades, America now leads the world in harnessing the genetic code to understand, prevent and cure disease.

A more recent triumph comes from the field of cancer research. Our country’s sustained investments have revealed the promise of enlisting the body’s immune system in the fight against cancer. This led to the development of a new class of immune stimulating drugs now saving thousands of lives.

However, despite past successes of federally funded medical research projects, even larger challenges lie ahead.

We’re currently witnessing a dramatic increase in life spans. The number of Americans older than age 60, a stage in life associated with costly diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer’s disease, is on the rise. Over the past 10 years, our nation has worked vigorously to optimize health care delivery to prepare us for an expected flood of chronic, age-related diseases. Given our long track record of health research successes, you might imagine our nation has also accelerated its investments. Sadly, that is not the case.

Funding for the National Institutes of Health, our nation’s medical research agency, has dwindled by nearly 25 percent since 2003, when adjusted for inflation. This decline threatens America’s long-standing pre-eminence in medical discovery. More importantly, it is threatening the health of our citizens for generations to come. Hundreds of potentially life-saving research ideas proposed each year are never pursued. As a result, real people — our family, friends and neighbors — pay the price.

At the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, we’ve launched an ambitious cancer Moon Shots Program to reduce cancer cases and mortality at a faster pace. It is a goal-oriented program that harnesses the best minds across several health disciplines and transformative technologies to unravel the mysteries of cancer. We then quickly convert that knowledge into drugs, diagnostics and policies that can save lives in the near term.

These ambitions are within reach because of our nation’s history of investing in the NIH, the primary source of research support in our nation’s universities, medical schools, businesses and other research institutions in every state. NIH-supported research has been the unequivocal major source of new knowledge leading to the prevention, detection and treatment of many diseases both common and rare.

Through the NIH, our nation invests an average of $30 billion in medical research every year. Nearly 95 percent of its budget funds research, and more than more than eighty percent of its total budget is dedicated to competitive research grants awarded across the country. The economic return to the nation is striking. It is estimated that the $3.6 billion investment in the human genome project of the 1990s has so far generated an economic return of $1 trillion. NIH-supported discoveries have also catalyzed the creation of many new biopharmaceutical companies, which in turn develop medicines that reduce death and suffering.

Some may wonder whether private industry might fill the growing budget gap. The simple answer is: no. The NIH supports fundamental, basic science research that serves as the foundation of future treatments and cures. It funds long-term research that over a period of years often results in Nobel Prize-worthy breakthroughs and their ultimate translation into the clinic.

Learning from America’s past playbook for success, other nations aren’t standing by idly. They’re investing in medical research on an immense scale. While the United States has long been the undisputed global leader in medical research, China is on track to outspend us in research and development by 2022. Even Russia plans to increase its research investment by 65 percent over the next five years.

Now is time for Congress to re-establish our role as a global leader in medical research by restoring its investment in the health of every American, too many of whom have already been touched by disease. Restoring the budget for the National Institutes of Health, and setting it on a steady path for the future, is the only option that will keep our economy growing, and most importantly, save countless lives for generations to come. If we are successful, this, I believe, will be our generation’s greatest legacy.

Ronald DePinho, M.D., is president of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.