Rosa DeLauro highlights danger to medical research if NIH funds are cut

Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro came to Yale School of Medicine today to get a first-hand look at how proposed federal budget cuts would impact the extensive, cutting-edge and life-saving scientific research going on at Yale — and, by extension, at academic research centers all over the country.

DeLauro, a Democrat who represents Connecticut’s Third District (which includes New Haven), is Ranking Member on the House Labor, Education, Health and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee. She is trying to sound the alarm about cuts passed by the Republican-controlled House last week, which would reduce funding to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) by $1.6 billion below 2010 appropriations, and $2.5 billion below what has been requested by President Obama for the NIH.

DeLauro toured the lab of Dr. Stephen Strittmatter, professor of neurology and neurobiology and co-founder of the Yale program in Cellular Neuroscience, Neurodegeneration and Repair. Strittmatter is a renowned researcher and clinician who focuses on spinal cord injuries, facilitating nerve repair after traumatic injury, and Alzheimer’s disease. Much of the research in his lab, housed inside the Boyer Center for Molecular Medicine, is funded by NIH grants, as are the salaries of the young up-and-coming researchers on his staff. They all stand to lose millions if the cuts to NIH funding stand.

Most devastating, DeLauro said, would be the direct impact on human health. “In the past nine months, Yale scientists have developed a new way to prevent staph infections by genetically manipulating cells,” she began. “They’ve identified a single molecule that impacts learning and memory, suggesting new treatments for diseases like Alzheimer’s. They’ve managed the first step in generating and implanting artificial lung tissue, and if ultimately successful, the technique could remove the need for lung transplants and save many of the 400,000 Americans who die each year of lung disease. All of this is happening at Yale, thanks to the National Institutes of Health. But now this life-saving research is in danger.”

DeLauro also warned that the quantity of new, competitive grants would drastically decline in addition to the funding dollar amount. These grants affect not just basic science but its translation into medicines that help cure human disease, she noted, adding that clinical trials that bring new treatments and preventions directly to the patient would be halted or curtailed. “What a loss for this country, what a loss for the world,” DeLauro said.

Strittmatter explained that NIH funding has to be continuous, rather than fluctuating, to produce results. “A 2% cut in NIH funding may decrease innovation by 50%,” he said. “There’s not a one-to-one connection. Even small cuts can have disastrous effects on the ability of science to have an impact on saving lives.”

And that can mean that younger researchers may never see their years of work come to fruition, noted School of Medicine Dean Dr. Robert J. Alpern, adding, “The best and the brightest of our youth have chosen careers in biomedical research and in so doing have advanced it. But they rely on a knowledge that there will be stable funding.”

Alpern also noted the economic consequences to the country, saying cuts to biomedical research could cost jobs and America’s standing as the world leader in biomedical research. “If we don’t continue this commitment,” he said, “other countries will step in. If we lose our leadership, it will be very difficult to get it back.”

With a critical shortage of nurses in the United States, the mission of Yale School of Nursing would also be adversely affected by NIH cuts. “It’s important to understand what nursing research is,” explained Dean Margaret Grey. “While others work on finding new medicines, somebody is taking care of people who have these conditions or who are at risk today. Our work focuses on developing new approaches for nurses and others to manage these kinds of conditions and prevent them, so these kinds of cuts will affect not only the ability to do basic science but also our ability to care for patients until the cure is found.”

DeLauro called the cuts passed by the House reckless in the short and long term. “We would only recognize down the road what would be the outcome if we are without this groundbreaking research. It will negatively affect the health of every American. The discovery of fundamental knowledge about how we grow, how we age, how we become ill or why we become ill will dramatically slow; so too will new treatments for prevention and treatment of disease.”

She ended on a personal note. “I’m an ovarian cancer survivor. It’ll be 25 years in March since I was diagnosed. I’m cancer-free today because of the biomedical research that existed at that time. Think of how much further we have come in 25 years. Let’s not go backwards.”

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Helen Dodson: helen.dodson@yale.edu, 203-436-3984