The budget proposal put forth by the current administration seeks a 19 percent cut in funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH), a federal agency that is responsible for conducting medical research and funding it at centers across the country. The NIH budget in 2016 was $30.1 billion; President Trump’s budget proposal includes a $5.8 billion cut.
The University of Colorado Denver’s Anschutz Campus receives more than $200 million in funding from the NIH, and a cut of nearly 20 percent—$50 million—would be devastating, according to Dr. Peter Buttrick, senior associate dean for academic affairs at University of Colorado School of Medicine (UCSOM). “What’s been proposed is so draconian, it’s hard to even imagine,” said Buttrick. “The NIH has historically allowed the United States to be the envy of the world … We risk losing a generation of scientists.”
The proposed cuts would have impacts across our community, on the many researchers, students, health care workers, and other staff members at the campus. According to data provided by UCSOM, almost 2,400 people in zip codes 80238, 80220, 80230 and 80207 work or study at the university and its clinical arm, UCHealth, at the Anschutz Campus (figures that do not include staff or students at other sites like UC Denver’s downtown campus).
Buttrick is concerned not only about the considerable effect NIH cuts to biomedical research could have on local employment but also to the “ancillary advantages” such research provides. “It allows us to develop public-private partnerships that advance knowledge. It does so many things that enhance the life of the larger community,” he said. “If the proposed cuts go through, I think construction on the campus would end. There would be no way to support the development of new infrastructure. Many people would lose their jobs.” And the trajectory of scientific discovery—like personalized genetic medicine to treat cancer—will be blunted, he added.
Case Study: Park Hill Resident and His Research
Park Hill resident Dr. Kevin Deane is a rheumatologist who studies rheumatoid arthritis (RA), a chronic, sometimes debilitating condition that affects about 1 percent of the population. Its onset is usually in mid-life, in peak working years, and if not caught and treated early, it can lead to disability and consequent loss of capacity to work and enjoy an active life.
Dr. Deane’s research, which is funded by an NIH grant, involves screening people at risk of developing RA and then treating those who have certain markers with a generic drug that promises to prevent the onset of RA. Because the disease would be caught in an early, “stuttering” phase, the drug “could potentially be used for a limited time and the disease will never get into that chronic phase where you have to treat it forever,” said Deane.
Deane said treating chronic RA costs about $30,000 annually over 20 or more years, while the cost of the preventative intervention he is researching is only a few thousand dollars. “The NIH has a particular interest in these types of numbers because they’re related to the other side of government that is paying for those kinds of things,” said Deane. “A drug company is maybe not so interested in most prevention because it is not a model of sustained drug delivery.”
The work it takes to develop research like Deane’s is painstaking, and not all efforts pan out. According to Deane, out of 100 projects, perhaps five will be successful. And within each of those projects are thousands of hours—years—of work. Deane himself plans to test 5,000 subjects, if he is able to finish the five-year grant that funds him (the proposed NIH cuts could curtail his existing grant). This is not the kind of research typically funded by large pharmaceutical companies, and replacing the NIH support would be difficult if not impossible.
“As researchers, it will be much harder to pursue our dreams of curing or preventing diseases without the NIH funding and will also affect our ability to function here at the university,” said Deane. “Eighty percent of my funding is research, and 80 percent of that is NIH funding. Without that, I would have to change my existence substantially.”
Both Deane and Buttrick have considered alternative funding routes, such as venture capital, philanthropy, or partnerships with pharmaceutical companies, but none are likely to fully replace the sustained support for public interest research that the NIH does
“We’re very fortunate in Colorado, Aurora—even Stapleton. This campus is one of the premier research campuses in the world. It is a source of enormous community pride,” says Buttrick. “It is probably one of maybe 25 such campuses in the country, and those are … the bright, shining lights that are in jeopardy.”