Change the Course of Biomedical History

Congress shouldn’t bypass a groundbreaking opportunity to support medical research.

The 21st Century Cures Act, passed in July by an overwhelming bipartisan majority of the House of Representatives, might just be the most significant piece of legislation affecting biomedical research. Ever.

That’s an admittedly bold statement. But consider that the House, led by Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI) and committee member Dianna DeGette (D-CO), accomplished something that has eluded multiple past Congresses – significantly increasing funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The House-passed bill provides for increased annual spending for NIH for three years and further puts the NIH on a sustainable growth path by providing for a mandatory, five-year, $8.75 billion Innovation Fund. Now the Senate needs to do the same.

The 21st century has been heralded as the “Biomedical Century” because of the phenomenal opportunity before us to use genomics and ever-more powerful computational and analytical tools to understand diseases like never before – and most significantly – to develop effective treatments for our most chronic and vexing diseases.

At the University of Pennsylvania, this is enabling exciting clinical trial results for a variety of therapies, from restoring vision to treating “untreatable” leukemia. Gene therapy research at Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine and The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) to restore sight in children and adults has yielded amazing results. Not only has vision been restored for many patients who’ve received this experimental therapy, researchers have found that this sight restoration actually leads to strengthening of visual pathways in the brain. In another example of the promise of personalized medicine, clinical trials are underway in Penn’s Abramson Cancer Center to help patients with blood cancers re-engineer their own immune cells to target and attack their cancer. As many as 90 percent of pediatric and adult patients with acute lymphoblastic leukemia who received this investigational therapy – and who had stopped responding to conventional treatments – have gone into remission.

Yet as we stand on the cusp of so much promise and opportunity, the world’s premier sponsor of biomedical research, the NIH, has been underfunded for 12 of the past 15 years. It is impossible to know exactly what this means in terms of lost opportunities and delayed progress toward cures.

What we do know is that for every dollar of NIH funding, there is tremendous payback. Largely as a result of NIH research, Americans live longer today – 30 years longer than in 1900 – and have a better quality of life. In the last 25 years, the proportion of older people with chronic disabilities has dropped by nearly one-third. Cancer death rates are falling as are deaths from heart disease and stroke. Additionally, it’s estimated that every $1 of NIH funding generates about $2.21 in local economic growth. Discoveries from NIH-funded research fuel the U.S. biomedical industry, which employs 1 million U.S. citizens and exports approximately $90 billion in goods and services annually. And the effort that brought us the Biomedical Century, the Human Genome Project? For our $4 billion investment, the United States has seen nearly $1 trillion in economic activity.

Those are some of the tangible paybacks from biomedical research. As the leader of any research university will tell you, our first mission is to educate. The opportunities provided to students at all stages of their education by federally funded research are incalculable. But as aspiring young researchers see the decreasing availability of NIH funding, they look to other career paths. Indeed, this might be one of the longest and hardest felt impacts of the past decade: a lost generation of talent.

For example, a team of Penn researchers is working to develop a reliable test, and hopefully a cure, for mesothelioma. Because of tight budgets at NIH, their grant was cut by 20 percent. This means they could hire fewer researchers, potentially slowing the progress of success in treating this insidious disease.

In the era of budget deficits and sequestration, increasing our investment in biomedical research is no small task. But members of both parties in the House of Representatives have shown that they understand the alternative is worse. The number of diseases for which there are no proven methods of prevention or treatments still far out-paces those for which there are. And the societal and economic costs of diseases like diabetes, Alzheimer’s and cancer grow each year, swamping our healthcare system and slowing our economic growth.

Now it is up to the Senate to act. As the Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee develops its medical innovation legislation, it is essential that it also take the bold step of including a funding mechanism to make up for a lost decade and put the NIH back on a sustainable growth path. Time is of the essence. The Senate should move as quickly as possible to pass its version of 21st Century Cures bill and send it to the President for his signature.

If this happens, the 114th Congress could become the catalyst for groundbreaking cures and change the course of biomedical history. What a remarkable legacy that would be.

 

Amy Gutmann

Amy Gutmann is President and Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Political Science in the School of Arts and Sciences and Professor of Communication in the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.