Medical-Research Advocates Contemplate Losing `Patron Saint' Arlen Specter

May 17 (Bloomberg Government) -- Arlen Specter’s career- long fight for medical research has won him allies in his battle to remain in the U.S. Senate.

Amgen Inc. and Life Technologies Corp. are among drug and laboratory-equipment companies supporting the Pennsylvania Democrat in tomorrow’s primary election. Only lawyers and financial services companies have given Specter more this year than the $1.7 million from his allies in health care, based on data compiled by the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics.

Specter, 80, matters because of his long-time support for the National Institutes of Health, whose budget he helped double. The Bethesda, Maryland, agency comprises more than two dozen institutes and centers that channel billions of research dollars to universities and medical schools. Some of the money supports purchases of equipment, and the laboratory work can lead to new medicines sold by drugmakers such as Amgen.

“If he were to lose -- and I’m not counting on that -- I think it would be devastating,” said Barbara Duffy Stewart, executive director of the Association of American Cancer Institutes, the umbrella group for 95 research centers in the U.S. “He’s been our patron saint.”

The support from Specter, who has struggled with cancer, goes beyond money. He has pushed to allow controversial government-supported research into embryonic stem cells and “intellectual property and patent protections that promote continued biotech innovation,” said Jeff Joseph, a spokesman for the Biotechnology Industry Organization, a Washington trade group that doesn’t endorse candidates.

Stimulus Spending

Specter last put his stamp on medical spending when, still a Republican, Democrats agreed at his insistence to a two-year, $10.4 billion boost for the institutes in President Barack Obama’s economic stimulus law. Republican criticism of his vote for the legislation contributed to his changing parties in April 2009.

Because of the stimulus money, the institutes have $36.4 billion for this fiscal year instead of $31.2 billion. Obama has proposed a “base” budget of $32.2 billion for fiscal 2011, which starts Oct. 1, and there are no more stimulus dollars.

As a senior member of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee for health, Specter had fought to double the agency’s budget to $27.1 billion in 2003 from $13.6 billion in 1998. A map of the human genetic blueprint, the human genome, was completed in 2003 with the help of agency funding.

‘Cures Network’

This year, Specter is seeking as much as $1 billion more in research money to fund a “cures acceleration network” he was responsible for adding to the landmark health-care revamp that Congress passed this year.

Stewart, of the cancer-research group, said research advocates want $35.2 billion in 2011 and believe Specter would support that amount. Janet Lynch Lambert, vice president for government relations at Life Technologies, said Specter has shown he can deliver.

“No one’s put more time, energy or political capital into medical-research funding than Arlen Specter,” she said.

“Without Specter we might still be working on mapping the human genome,” said Lambert, also a spokeswoman for United for Medical Research, a coalition of institutions, patients’ advocates and private industry. “Instead, now we’ve not only mapped the human genome but you’ve got five or six companies in a mad race to map a full human genome for $1,000 -- and close to getting there, with profound implications for human health care.”

Expending Capital

Her company, based in Carlsbad, California, is among those competitors. It’s also a Specter contributor: $8,750, Lambert said.

Specter will soon learn whether his “political capital” has run out. Television ads by Specter’s challenger, Representative Joe Sestak, remind voters of the incumbent’s Republican past.

Specter was trailing Sestak by about 3.2 percentage points, according to an average of polls compiled by Real Clear Politics, an independent website, as of today.

Sestak, 58, has received about $96,000 from health-care interests, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Sestak’s daughter, Alex, was diagnosed with brain cancer when she was 4, and the former admiral credits military health care with saving her life. She’s now 8. He said he supports increased funding for the institutes of health and “will continue to do so in the Senate.”

‘Tremendous Respect’

“I have tremendous respect for the work Senator Specter has done on behalf of the National Institutes of Health,” Sestak said in an e-mailed statement. “I went to Congress to see all Americans have access to the kind of health care that saved my daughter’s life.”

On his Web site, Sestak says he would advocate to keep the institutes’ budget at “50 percent of stimulus funding” in fiscal 2011. That would mean about $33.5 billion.

Not all the health-industry contributors to Specter are research focused. Pride Mobility Products and its employees have contributed about $117,000 this year to Specter’s two fundraising committees. Pride, based in Exeter, Pennsylvania, sells lift-chairs, scooters and powered wheelchairs. Its revenue is affected by coverage decisions at Medicare, the U.S. government’s program for the elderly and disabled.

Amgen, the world’s largest biotechnology company, and its employees have contributed $62,850 to Specter this year.

‘Crown Jewels’

“Amgen’s mission is to deliver new medicines to patients,” said Kelley Davenport, a spokeswoman for the Thousand Oaks, California, company, in an e-mail. “Our discovery process, of course, benefits from expanded scientific knowledge and the jewel of biomedical research in the world is the National Institutes of Health.”

Specter called the institutes “the crown jewels of the federal government” at a May 5 hearing on the agency’s budget.

“Perhaps the only jewels,” he said. “And in an era where we are searching for ways to prolong lives, save lives and save money, it seems to me that we ought to be funding NIH a lot more aggressively than we are.”

The chairmen of the congressional appropriations committees with responsibility for the National Institutes of Health, Representative David W. Obey of Wisconsin and Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, said they’ll be pressed to give the agency more than the $1 billion extra Obama has proposed.

“You tell me where to get the money,” Harkin told Specter at the May 5 hearing.

“I will,” Specter said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Alex Wayne in Washington awayne3@bloomberg.net.

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