Olivera J. Finn and Robert E. Schoen/Invest in America's health

Proposed cuts in medical research would be shortsighted

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Every day, physicians and scientists see the hope and promise that medical research brings to patients and families. For nearly 70 years, research funded by the National Institutes of Health has increased understanding of the causes of disease, contributed to longer life expectancy and improved the health and well-being of all Americans. With such a proud record of economic and social benefit, it is shocking that the House Appropriations Committee has proposed a drastic cut of nearly 20 percent to NIH funding in 2014. This outrageous proposal must be stopped.

Research is a dynamic process. New, life-improving advances are constantly within reach -- but only with uninterrupted effort, commitment and funding. NIH Director Francis Collins says these cuts would be a "profound and devastating" blow at a time of unprecedented scientific opportunity.

Medical research cannot be turned on and off like a spigot. Research interrupted by budget cuts would mean years of lost productivity for today's scientists and untold future losses due to the departure of young scientists who may never return.

Here in Pittsburgh, steady NIH funding over the past decade has enabled us and our colleagues to develop several novel cancer vaccines and test them for cancer prevention. Earlier this year, we reported in the journal Cancer Prevention Research our first-in-the-world clinical trial of a vaccine, based on a cell protein called MUC1, that might prevent colon cancer.

This fall we hope to start a larger trial at 11 medical centers across the country to determine whether our vaccine lowers the risk of colon cancer. And because MUC1 is abnormally produced in other cancers, including pancreatic, breast, lung, prostate and ovarian, we plan to test the vaccine in patients who have premalignant lesions leading to those cancers, too.

Our colleague, Thanos Tzounopoulos, associate professor of otolaryngology, has been studying the causes of tinnitus, a chronic and often debilitating ringing in the ears that affects millions of Americans, including many combat veterans. His team has found that an FDA-approved epilepsy drug, retigabine, prevents the development of tinnitus in mice (reported last month in the early online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences). This discovery was possible because Dr. Tzounopoulos' NIH-funded research identified specific brain cell activity causing tinnitus and gave him a target for which to aim -- with the right drug.

Despite important medical advances like these, recent federal budget cuts that are part of sequestration slashed NIH's budget by $1.7 billion in 2013 alone. And now the House Appropriations Committee proposes to cut 2014 funding by three times that amount, turning back the clock on our nation's medical research efforts to 1990s levels.

NIH is the world's largest source of funding for medical research. NIH-funded research grants create skilled jobs, new products and improved technologies -- knowledge that will not be replaced by the private sector, whose horizons are necessarily shorter term.

Federal investment in NIH is the foundation for long-term U.S. global competitiveness in industries such as biotechnology, medical-device manufacturing and pharmaceutical development, a status that is threatened by the proposed cuts even as nations like China and India are striving to emulate the NIH model.

Recent polling shows that most Americans, regardless of political affiliation, disapprove of the sequester cuts. The University of Pittsburgh and the nation's medical schools and teaching hospitals urge Congress and the administration to work together to craft a bipartisan balanced deficit reduction plan that preserves the life-saving and economy-building research funded by the National Institutes of Health. Our nation's health is at stake.

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Olivera J. Finn is distinguished professor and chair of immunology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. Robert E. Schoen is professor of medicine and of epidemiology at Pitt's School of Medicine and Graduate School of Public Health.


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