As the senior vice president of the University of Utah Health Sciences (UUHS), I have the privilege of working with some of the top researchers in the country who have devoted their lives to making discoveries that will change others’ lives for the better. With funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the nation’s primary medical research agency, leading scientists in the United States and our own state of Utah are closing in on discoveries that would save and improve countless lives. A snapshot of discoveries made by researchers at UUHS — including genetic causes for breast, ovarian and colon cancers and preventive and novel treatments for each — speaks volumes about the importance of federal funding for NIH.
This summer, University of Utah researchers identified a previously unknown but crucial component in the process of platelet generation, a discovery that could help ease serious side effects of treatment for multiple myeloma patients. At the same time, the NIH funded University of Utah Molecular Medicine and conducted studies to learn how metabolic stress, inflammation, bleeding and clotting contribute to diseases like diabetes and obesity. Findings like these are revolutionary because they translate into lives saved, enhanced and even lengthened. We are on the right track, but without proper funding for the NIH, our progress could be derailed.
Little attention has been given to the fact that NIH receives nearly 25 percent less in funding than it did in 2003, when adjusted for inflation. The immediate impact of this funding gap is the loss of funding for hundreds of promising proposals for research on cancer, Alzheimer’s and other diseases. Stagnant funding translates into stalled research, something neither Utah nor the rest of the country can afford. And as a leading academic research institution, this can translate to fewer researchers entering the profession. The U.S. has long been the global leader in medical research, but other countries are catching up quickly. If current trends continue, China will outspend the U.S. on medical research by the year 2022.
Utah’s leading research institutions and biotech companies received more than $159 million in research funding from NIH in 2013 alone, and the return on this investment has been significant and measurable. This federal investment not only furthers our scientific endeavors, but it also bolsters our economy. Utah is home to 911 bioscience businesses, and our residents held 23,406 bioscience industry jobs in 2010. From 2010-2013, University of Utah innovation has led to the formation of 75 start-up companies. The University has also issued 265 patents and executed 307 licensing agreements during those years. Without continued investment in NIH, future statistics will not be so bright.
Our lawmakers are at a crossroads when it comes to investing in the health of our country. We are on the cusp of major breakthroughs for diseases that have reached epidemic proportions in the U.S. – cancer, diabetes, heart disease, obesity and Alzheimer’s. If we do not make the investment now in finding cures and treatments, we will pay later. Consider that Alzheimer’s currently costs the U.S. $200 billion a year. Without a breakthrough treatment or cure, that cost will reach $1 trillion by the year 2050. This is a price our country cannot afford.
Now is the time to make up for the past decade of stagnant funding for NIH. As the old adage goes, “You do not have anything if you do not have your health.” Without a healthy funding investment for NIH, nothing else matters.
Vivian S. Lee, MD, Ph.D, MBA is the senior vice president, University of Utah Health Sciences, CEO, University of Utah Health Care, and Dean, University of Utah School of Medicine.