Tumors on Ice as Budget Impasse Freezes Medical Research

Rebecca Riggins, a Georgetown University cancer researcher, has had to freeze her work amid federal funding cuts brought on by sequestration. Literally.

Riggins has had breast tumor samples sitting on ice for a month awaiting a decision on how much of an almost $1 million federal grant will be trimmed as she moves into the third year of a five-year project to study breast cancer treatments. The grant could be cut by half, she’s been told.

Sequestration, the automatic, across-the-board spending reductions triggered last month after U.S. lawmakers failed to agree on a debt strategy, has cast a shadow of uncertainty over public funding for medical research. That work often serves as the basis for new treatments and strategies from drugmakers such as Pfizer Inc. and device makers such as Johnson & Johnson.

“We were ready to get them out the door” for genetic analysis, said Riggins, referring to the tumor samples now “still sitting in the freezer.”

In anticipation of sequestration, the National Institutes of Health began trimming 10 percent off existing grants at the beginning of the fiscal year, director Francis Collins said in a Feb. 25 briefing. Now that it’s reality, the NIH is facing a 5.1 percent decrease in its 2013 budget, or about $1.6 billion.

Protest Rally

Next week, the medical research community will seek to draw the nation’s attention to its concerns at the annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research in Washington. The group will shut down its meeting in the morning of April 8 for the Rally for Medical Research in the hopes of attracting as many as 15,000 supporters to the Carnegie Library grounds at Mt. Vernon Square.

“Cuts to medical research don’t have the same visible impact as standing in line at the airport, closed national parks or no White House tours,” said Sue Nelson, vice president of federal advocacy for the American Heart Association, in a telephone interview. “It’s important for the rally to explain to lawmakers and the public what these cuts are costing them in the longer term.”

Rebecca Riggins’ work helps tell that larger story. Riggins, 36, an assistant professor at Georgetown’s Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center in Washington, is studying how hormones cause resistance to certain gene-based medicines for breast cancer. U.S. officials have already told Riggins that much of the financing for her grant, a collaboration involving Georgetown, Virginia Tech and the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia, is in jeopardy.

Developing Scientists

Riggins has plenty of company. Benjamin Hayden, a 34-year-old neuroscientist, is just starting his lab at the University of Rochester in New York. His first two federal grant applications as a faculty member were for the study of decision-making and what goes wrong in the brain during drug addiction.

He received scores on grant applications to both the NIH and National Science Foundation that he was told would normally merit funding, he said in an interview. Now, “it’s not clear” what funding he’ll receive or when he might expect to see it, he said.

Hayden had planned to hire two graduate students and a post-doctoral fellow with the expected funding, he said. Because of the current uncertainty, he was only able to offer a position to one graduate student.

Spending Critics

Joan Brugge, chairwoman of the cell biology department at Harvard Medical School, says the cuts are affecting experienced researchers in addition to scientists just starting out. She lost three of four NIH grants in the last year and a half, amounting to about $800,000 in reduced funding.

“This is the peak of my career,” Brugge said in an interview. “We are really fearing for the worst because, essentially, in the 35 years I’ve been doing research I’ve never seen anything like this.”

To be sure, the effects of sequestration are much broader than medical research.

The cuts will reduce spending by $85 billion this year across the government, causing agencies to reduce services and lay off or furlough employees. President Barack Obama warned their effects may span from hurting the military to shutting campgrounds at popular national parks to delaying travelers at airports and cutting safety inspections at food plants.

Critics of federal spending say there are other priorities than funding medical research.

Dwindling Resources

“Right now, I think our members would say to the medical community: Be content with what you have,” said Dean Clancy, vice president of public policy for FreedomWorks, a Washington-based organization advocating for lower taxes and smaller government, in an e-mail. “If you think these sequester cuts are deep, wait until you see what happens after we default on our debt. Then we’ll be in Greece/Cyprus territory, just trying to survive, with everything on the chopping block.”

Steven Houser, director of the cardiovascular research center at Temple University School of Medicine in Philadelphia, said he fears the cuts will hamper research for years to come, shrinking the number of research trainees hired or accepted into graduate programs, and causing still other students to question whether medical research is a viable career option.

The chance of getting a grant funded by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, under the NIH umbrella, has fallen to about 6 percent this year, Houser said in a telephone interview. That’s the lowest he’s ever seen it, down from 10 percent to 12 percent in recent years, he said.

“The main thing that’s going to happen is people are going to lose jobs,” Houser said.

Job Losses

Temple’s medical school plans to lower the number of students it accepts into biomedical sciences doctorate programs next year by 15 percent, to 17 from 20, according to Houser. In addition, the institution may cut about 25 jobs in the next year or two as funding becomes more difficult to come by, he said.

It’s an issue that concerns more than just today’s research. Obama, in an April 2 announcement of a $100 million plan to map the brain, said he worried spending cuts might affect an entire generation of new scientists.

“We can’t afford to miss these opportunities while the rest of the world races ahead; we have to seize them,” Obama said. “I don’t want the next job-creating discoveries to happen in China or India or Germany. I want them to happen right here.”

While a continuing resolution passed last month by Congress restored some funding this year -- $71 million for the NIH --the cuts come on top of years of constrained U.S. research budgets, said Matt Hourihan, director of the R&D Budget and Policy Program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The NIH budget was little changed from 2010 to 2012 even as the cost of materials rose. It fell to $30.9 billion last year from $31.2 billion in 2010, according to the agency’s website.

‘Historically Bad’

“When you take what already has been an extremely tough environment for research and development funding and overlay sequestration on top of that, it turns a bad situation into a historically bad situation,” Hourihan said in an interview. “We’d still be in a very tough place even without sequestration because R&D budgets have declined so much.”

The NIH isn’t the only research-supporting agency hit. The across-the-board cuts from sequestration reduce total U.S. research and development spending by $9.1 billion this year, Hourihan said. That includes agencies such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the U.S. Geological Survey and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Federal funding for research has been squeezed before, “but not for so long,” said Janis Abkowitz, president of the American Society of Hematology and head of the University of Washington School of Medicine’s division of hematology in Seattle. Already, she said, some faculty members at her school are taking a salary cut to try to save funding from grants for research.

“These grants have been slimmed down and slimmed down and slimmed down,” said Tyler Jacks, director of the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. “We’re cutting very close to the bone, if not into it.”