Support Biomedical Research in the Economic Stimulus Package

This week, Congress is working to reconcile biomedical research funding differences in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. According to ProPublica, the Senate bill would spend substantially more on biomedical research than the House bill (10 billion vs. 900 million USD).

It is imperative that you urge your congressional members to support biomedical research as a critical driver of our economy. Here’s why: the biotechnology industry is a major driver of the U.S. economy and has been for the past 30 years [1]. Federal granting agencies have “shovel-ready” projects that will promote economic growth today — those research projects will help fight disease and improve the quality of life for everyone in America tomorrow.

NIH Increases Support for High-risk Large-impact Biomedical Research

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced last week that it has increased support for high-risk, large-impact research by awarding 16 investigators the Pioneer Award; 2.5 million for each investigator over five years to pursue research in a variety of areas, including embroyonic development, autism, prions (responsible for the formation of amyloid plaques that lead to neurodegeneration) and malaria [1].

The NIH Director’s Pioneer Award is a high-risk research initiative desiged to [2]:

… support individual scientists of exceptional creativity who propose pioneering — and possibly transforming approaches — to major challenges in biomedical and behavioral research.

First announced in 2004, 9 awards were presented in September 2004, 13 awards each were made in 2005 and 2006, and 12 awards were presented last year.

Funding of Childhood Cancer, NF Research in Jeopardy

Neurofibromatosis (NF) is a set of genetic disorders that can cause tumors to develop and grow along various types of nerves. The tumors may also affect the development of non-nervous system tissues such as skin and bone.

There are three types of NF tumors that result from mutation or loss of different tumor suppressor genes:

  • Neurofibromatosis type 1 (NF1) is the most frequent inherited cause of brain and nerve tumors. One in every 3,000 children is born with NF1, making it also one of the most common inherited human diseases worldwide. Enlargement and deformation of bones may also occur. Approximately 50% of people with NF1 also have learning disabilities. NF1 is caused by a mutation or loss of the tumor suppressor gene NF1.
  • Neurofibromatosis type 2 (NF2) is much rarer, occurring in one in 25,000 births. NF2 is characterized by the development of multiple tumors on the cranial and spinal nerves. The hallmark of NF2 is the formation of tumors that affect auditory nerves. Hearing loss beginning in the teens or early twenties is typically the first symptom of NF2. NF2 is caused by a mutation or loss of the tumor suppressor gene NF2.
  • Schwannomatosis is even rarer than NF2, affecting one in 40,000 individuals. SImilar to NF1 and NF2, Schwannomatosis tumors can develop on cranial, spinal and/or peripheral nerves. Although patients with Schwannomatosis do not have learning disabilities, they experience chronic pain and occasionally numbness, tingling and weakness. The candidate Schwannomatosis tumor suppressor gene is named INI1.

Flat Funding of Biomedical Research: The Threat to America’s Health

According to a report released earlier this week, five years of consecutive flat or below-inflation funding of the budget of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is discouraging promising young researchers and endangering the future of America’s health [1]. The study warns that many of the brightest young minds are leaking out of the academic research pipeline because they no longer see a promising career in academic science. Indeed, America could lose a generation of promising researchers to other careers and other countries.

More Steps for Open Access

Jonathan Eisen, an evolutionary biologist at U.C. Davis Genome Center, has been named the first Academic Editor-in-Chief at the Public Library of Science (PLoS) journal PLoS Biology. He wrote an editorial published Tuesday on the PLoS Biology website that discusses his conversion and commitment to open-access publishing. His personal experience exemplifies what to me is the principle reason for open access [1]:

So there I was — a scientist and a taxpayer — desperate to read the results of work that I helped pay for and work that might give me more knowledge than possessed by our doctors. And yet either I could not get the papers or I had to pay to read them without knowing if they would be helpful.

Decisions in health and medicine frequently aren’t black and white. In the Internet age, more and more people are using the web to guide healthcare decision making. Allowing healthcare consumers and e-patients access to evidence from biomedical research studies will enable them to make more informed decisions about their healthcare. Open access is pivotal to that empowerment.