NIH funding vital to MCG mission

Every day we hear about how scientific research improves and saves lives.

Because of research, Helen Whitehead of Swainsboro, Ga. -- whom you may have read about in this newspaper -- became the first person in the nation to receive an intravenous antibiotic called minocycline, not for an infection, but as a novel treatment for stroke.

The drug appears to be a powerful adjunct treatment for a clot-buster protein known as tPA, the only FDA-approved drug therapy for strokes. Animal studies have shown the drug reduces stroke damage by up to 40 percent, but studies with volunteers, such as Mrs. Whitehead, are still needed.

Because of research, we know that just three months of daily, vigorous physical activity in overweight children improves their thinking and reduces their diabetes risk.

WE ALSO KNOW that children with sickle cell disease can have a painless and relatively inexpensive test that identifies unique blood flow patterns in the brain indicating whether they also are at risk for stroke, and that regular blood transfusions can reduce that risk.

These remarkable scientific advances can be traced to research conducted by U.S. medical schools, in these cases the Medical College of Georgia, with support from the National Institutes of Health. Over the past 30 years, our nation's investment in medical research through the NIH has amounted to about $44 per American per year. Yet the return on this investment has been truly spectacular. Life expectancy has increased, deaths from heart disease, cancer and stroke are declining, and new treatments have virtually eliminated transmission of the HIV virus from mother to child.

Between 1998 and 2003, the federal government doubled the NIH budget. This was a needed boost for medical science. MCG and many schools thrived in this environment, with record increases in funding of scientific pursuits. MCG developed science faculty whose leading-edge research efforts were rewarded with NIH grants, and whose ability to educate the next generation of scientists and physicians was lauded by students days before MCG graduation in May.

BUT AS WE pointed out in a recent meeting with this newspaper's editorial board, federal support for the NIH has been nearly flat for the past five years and has not kept pace with increasing biomedical research costs. This year promises to be no different. The Bush administration's 2009 NIH budget proposal holds funding flat at the current level of $29.5 billion. The Association of American Medical Colleges has calculated that the purchasing power of the 2009 administration proposal is $3.6 billion less than in 2003.

At MCG and the nation's other research-intensive medical schools, the impact of this economic contraction in federal dollars has a real-world effect on scientists, their programs and ultimately all of us. Many strong research proposals that would have been approved for funding by NIH reviewers in years past must now be funded, if possible by the medical school, or they must be shut down. There also is a powerful economic aftershock that follows the initial impact of fewer available federal research dollars being infused through the NIH -- the loss of high-technology research jobs and faculty to other universities outside of Georgia and even outside our nation, or to the private biomedical science sector.

MOST IMPORTANTLY, it costs us knowledge that enables us to live healthier and longer lives.

Fortunately for Georgia's research universities, the Georgia Research Alliance, a nationally renowned public-private partnership, has helped keep Georgia and MCG competitive for new research faculty. The alliance is an engine for novel science that has led to intellectual property that helps improve the health of Georgians, and the economy of Augusta and the state.

Expanding research capacity at MCG -- requiring an investment in recruitment of new research faculty and construction of new buildings -- will improve productivity and the impact the science has on our lives. It also will grow the annual value of commercialization of research findings from $25 million in 2008 to $180 million by 2020 in Augusta alone, according to the Roadmap for Medical College of Georgia School of Medicine and Statewide Partners by the Tripp-Umbach consulting firm.

THE SAME report also indicates that, statewide, the annual value of commercializing research discoveries from expansion of medical research at MCG could increase tenfold, reaching in excess of $360 million per year, inclusive of the recommended research partnership with the University of Georgia, one of MCG's expansion partners. Expansion planners also assert that research funding awarded annually to both MCG and UGA by the NIH will increase 15 percent more than would be projected if each university worked alone to secure NIH grants and contracts. So there is a positive return on research program synergy and scientific collaboration. Additional federal dollars flow into the Augusta area, enabling a growing cadre of scientists to make more discoveries that improve lives. That positive impact is compounded by the fact that many of these discoveries will lead to commercial ventures that bring still more science and prestige to the community.

Looking forward, we will continue to face challenges in expanding our nation's medical knowledge, and the research capacity at institutions such as the Medical College of Georgia. These challenges can be addressed only if we make a sustained investment in the National Institutes of Health. The health of Augusta, Georgia and the nation depend on it.

(The writers are, respectively, the dean and chief clinical officer of the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta; and the former dean of the MCG School of Medicine, and current president and CEO of the Association of American Medical Colleges in Washington, D.C.)

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