Consortium sees threat to medical progress in combating cancer, Alzheimer's disease, spinal cord injuries and other conditions

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A report delivered this week to Congress states that stagnant funding for research threatens advances in biomedical research.

The director of the UC Davis Women's Cardiovascular Medicine Program participated in a consortium of eight leading scientific and medical institutions around the country that Monday warned Congress that persistent flat funding of biomedical research could thwart advances in treatments for cancer, Alzheimer's disease and other conditions. The report on the status of medical research and its funding in the United States was released at a press conference on Capitol Hill.

The 21-page report warns that multiple years of stagnant budgets for the National Institutes of Health has hindered scientific progress, resulting in promising research being halted in mid-stream; young investigators leaving careers in science; and an undermining of U.S. global leadership in biomedical research. The group says Congress needs to provide more consistent and robust funding for the NIH if the U.S. is to reach its potential in scientific capacity. The authors are Harvard University, the University of California, Columbia University, Johns Hopkins University, University of Texas at Austin, Washington University in St. Louis, the University of Wisconsin Madison and Yale University.

According to the report, "Within Our Grasp — Or Slipping Away? Assuring a New Era of Scientific and Medical Progress,"(PDF) the doubling of the NIH budget between 1998 and 2003 transformed science in important fields and fueled advances in basic research. But as a result of subsequent flat funding, the nation is now operating at an 8-percent loss in purchasing power.

Signs of progress

The report highlights six areas of biomedical science where scientists are making progress. Amparo Villablanca, founder and director of the UC Davis Women's Cardiovascular Program, contributed to the section titled "Tackling Twin Epidemics of Obesity and Diabetes."

The damage to the heart and blood vessels caused by obesity and diabetes is different for men and women because the blood vessels and the cardiovascular disease process differ between the genders. Through her work with genetically engineered mice, Villablanca has found that the differences revolve around receptors for the hormone estrogen within the cells that line blood vessels. She hopes to devise approaches that target the early stages of disease by changing the hormone environment — by either altering the receptors or changing the action of the hormones.

"We have learned so much about how diabetes and obesity damage blood vessels," Villblanca said. "All of the consequences of diabetes — kidney failure, blindness, loss of limbs and stroke — are vascular issues. And in obesity, fat cells are factories of inflammatory substances that harm the blood vessel walls. All of this knowledge comes from basic research."

The report describes recent revolutionary advances in basic research, fueled by robust federal investments in NIH funding throughout the United States, including major achievements related to Alzheimer's disease, cancer, HIV/AIDS, obesity, diabetes, and spinal cord and brain injury.

Projects at risk

Subsequent flat funding already has put many projects at risk. Eight of 10 research grant applications are going unfunded, according to the report. Certain NIH institutes, such as the National Cancer Institute, report that they can only fund 11 percent of research project grant applications, rejecting many of exceptional quality.

Consequently, young people are turning away from science because the funding situation is so bleak. Scientists report that many of the brightest young minds no longer see the promise of a career in science, choosing law, business, and other professions. Losing young scientists today, will cost the U.S. a lot later, the report warns.

In addition, scientists are having to abandon some of their most innovative and promising research in favor of more conservative projects with more predictable results that are more likely to be funded. Principal investigators also must spend enormous amounts of time fundraising and writing grants rather than conducting research.

This is affecting the U.S. stature as a scientific leader. Frustrated by funding lags, scientists are following research dollars to countries in Europe and Asia that are making investment in biomedical sciences high national priorities and actively recruiting star U.S. scientists, according to the report.

The UC Davis Women's Cardiovascular Medicine Program is one of a few of its kind in the country and has a unique interdisciplinary approach with broad-based involvement of primary care and specialty health care professionals. It was developed in response to the lack of awareness and recognition by women and health care providers that heart disease is the leading killer of women. The program has 4 major focus areas: patient care, education, research and advocacy. The program is committed to responding to women's particular cardiovascular health care concerns, increasing sensitization of both physicians and patients to the risk of heart disease in women, and to decreasing cardiovascular disease mortality in women.