By Jeannie Baumann
Many scientists now spend more time scrambling to raise money for their work than actually doing the research because of the erosion of NIH funding over the last decade, the president of a biomedical research university said during a June 18 congressional briefing.
Mark Tessier-Lavigne said the 25 percent decline in the National Institutes of Health’s purchasing power has led to grants being funded at historically low rates, causing promising young scientists to leave the field altogether and threatening the future of the biomedical research workforce.
“The financial squeeze has triggered a crisis in the biomedical research enterprise,” according to Tessier-Lavigne, who is president of the Rockefeller University in New York and investigates how neural circuits in the brain form during embryonic development. “Renewing NIH funding is an essential investment, not just for our health, but also for our economy.”
Tessier-Lavigne was the main speaker at the Capitol Hill briefing, “Paying Dividends: How Federally Funded Biomedical Research Fuels the Pharmaceutical Industry in the U.S.,” which was organized by the Coalition for the Life Sciences and theCongressional Biomedical Research Caucus as part of the 2014 caucus briefing series.
The key point of Tessier-Lavigne’s presentation—that scientific opportunity has never been greater while federal funding for basic research is at a low—has been echoed, especially by NIH Director Francis S. Collins when testifying before lawmakers in both the House and the Senate.
“We live in a golden age of biological research, of disease research, and of drug discovery that’s been enabled by a revolution in the biosciences that’s occurred over the past 40 years, thanks to the development of very powerful technologies,” said Tessier-Lavigne, citing as examples recombinant DNA, gene sequencing, human genetics and imaging. “We can now tackle disease systematically and that is enabling systematic drug discovery.”
The research ecosystem requires early investment through NIH funding to academia to yield the treatments and cures from the pharmaceutical industry, Tessier-Lavigne said.
“There’s a division of labor,” he said. “Most of the scientific discovery that leads to the insights that are built upon are made in academia, in research labs, in research institutes, in universities supported by the NIH. At the other end of the spectrum, industry—mostly large pharmaceutical companies and large biotech companies—are responsible for making the drugs and taking them through human clinical trials.”
Tessier-Lavigne has worked at both ends of the spectrum, serving as chief scientific officer at biotechnology company Genentech before taking over at Rockefeller. He rejected the idea that drug companies could take on funding the basic research. The cost and time lines of drug discovery and development are already too great, he said.
“To make a drug, to get a drug approved there’s huge attritions,” he said. The process starts with targeting 24 projects, and scientists try to make drugs to fight them that yields on average about nine drug candidates that make it into clinical trials.
“But of those nine, only a single one will make it over the finish line as an approved drug,” he said.
That drug-making process takes an average of 13 years, including five years to make the drug candidates and eight years to get to clinical approval. Including failures, he estimated those costs at anywhere between $2 billion to $4 billion per drug.
“So companies that do this are already struggling to succeed just at this. There are no more resources to fund the ferment back here that leads to the identification of new knowledge. The companies can’t do it and they won’t do it,” he said.
“Couldn’t we just rely on other nations to generate the basic knowledge and then industry here could continue to do the translational work?” Tessier-Lavigne asked rhetorically.
“Well, that’s not how it works. Industry wants its R&D [research and development] sites to be located next to the sites of innovation. It’s as simple as that,” he said.
Over the past 30 years, Tessier-Lavigne said, there has been a “massive” transfer of industry from Europe to the U.S. because of the prominence of the U.S. biomedical enterprise.
“If we don’t maintain, sustain our investment in our basic biomedical enterprise, industry will pick up and move to the other sites,” he said, adding that countries like China are where these companies will move, taking jobs with them.
Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), co-chairman of the Congressional Biomedical Research Caucus, also mentioned that the U.S. may lose its position as the leader in R&D.
“We still lead in terms of patents and overall research, but China is about to eat our lunch,” said Speier, whose district includes the Bay Area and Genentech’s headquarters. “In fact, China has just about eclipsed Japan now in terms of research and within the next 10 years, it is anticipated that they will indeed overcome us in terms of research and development. And that would indeed be a tragic set of circumstances.”
Tessier-Lavigne proposed an action plan that primarily involves gradually restoring NIH funding in absolute dollars to its 2003 level—the final year of a five-year doubling. Since the 2003 doubling, the NIH’s budget has remained flat at about $30 billion. Collins has said that his agency would have about a $40 billion annual budget if the NIH had continued to receive the steady, 3 percent increases it received from the 1970s onward.
Restoring funding to the 2003 levels would relieve the squeeze on existing programs so scientists can focus on their work as well as stimulate new initiatives to accelerate progress and open new areas of discovery, Tessier-Lavigne said.
At the same time, the academic sector has a responsibility to make sure it spends these dollars effectively while developing a pipeline of new talent. And all stakeholders—academia, the NIH, disease foundations and the private sector—must ensure research discoveries are effectively translated into new therapies and cures.
The next congressional briefing is scheduled for July 16 on the advances and potential of embryonic stem cell research, withLawrence Goldstein, director of the University of California, San Diego, Stem Cell Program.
Thanks to Pete Cuomo for bringing this to the attention of the It’s Interesting community.