Biomedical research benefits bring House members, NIH leaders together

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In the face of a proposal by the Trump administration to cut funding for the National Institutes of Health by nearly a quarter with an $8 billion drop, House members hold a hearing that covers “from AIDS to Zika,” the “Cancer Moonshot,” the quest for a universal flu vaccine, how researchers working in their own countries around the world protect Americans, and more . . .

Searching for solutions to illnesses and conditions spanning lifetimes and nations, while supporting the development of scientific careers, providing jobs and contributing to economies across America, leaders from the National Institutes of Health who came to Capitol Hill brought much to unite, and little to divide the Republican and Democratic committee members who came to hear them this morning.

It is work that elicits pride, said Rep. Tom Cole, the Republican chair of the House Appropriations subcommittee overseeing spending on medical research and public health, “wherever you are on the political and ideological spectrum.”

“Partisan politics usually falls by the wayside,” agreed Appropriations committee ranking member Rep. Nita Lowey, when members consider the accomplishments across the institutes that make up the world’s leading biomedical research entity.

But with a proposal in President Trump’s March 16 “America First” budget outline to cut funding to the National Institutes of Health by $8 billion dollars, a move that would eliminate from 5,000 to 8,000 medical research grants, and close the Fogarty International Center that creates global research partnerships, members of the House Appropriations subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Services, were as united in what Cole and Lowey called “disappointment,” in the adminstration’s priorities, as by appreciation for America’s scientific leadership.

“I never thought I would be troubled by a hearing on the NIH,” Lowey said. “If a budget is a statement of our values, then this one is a slap in the face to the scientific community.”

“I was almost inclined to ignore the administration’s budget, but I can’t ignore it,” Rep. Rosa DeLauro, the subcommittee’s ranking member said. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price has tried to defend the budget proposal, she added.

The Fogarty International Center “represents a sliver of the budget, yet has an outsized impact,” Rep. DeLauro noted. She invited National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Dr. Anthony Fauci to explain the center’s work.

From “AIDS to Zika,” Dr. Fauci replied, noting that “virtually all of the collaborations” against infectious diseases threatening this country were the products of Fogarty grants, with work led in other countries by local scientists funded through the center, supported by its training and partnerships. “These are people who are brothers and sisters in what we do,” he said, citing Fogarty trainees  that led work to control of Ebola in Mali and Nigeria, and those who are working now to develop a vaccine against Zika. “Even though they are foreigners, they are helping the U.S. to be protected from disease,” Dr. Fauci said.

The Center was named for a Democratic congressman from Rhode Island who served the medical research appropriating subcommittee for 20 years, 16 of them as Chair, noted Rep. Cole, who reflected that a portrait would be an appropriate addition to the hearing room.

Rep. Cole, however also uncovered a partisan divide on one aspect of research funding when he asked NIH leader Dr. Francis Collins if the Institutes’ budget should be doubled, as, he noted, Rep. Lowey would prefer, or maintained, by his preference, with steady yearly increases. Dr. Collins responded that he preferred reliable increases to a “roller coaster.”

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Ca), in turn, said she believes the Institutes’ budget should be doubled, and asked Dr. Fauci to speak to work accomplished to control HIV globally and at home, and work ahead, to which Dr. Fauci responded with updates on the trial in South Africa underway now to expand understanding and application of the one vaccine candidate to show a protective effect against HIV, and the promise of explorations of other approaches through broadly neutralizing antibodies. At home the value of treatment as prevention, and of pre-exposure prophylactic use of antiretroviral medicine, proved through NIH research, is furthering the goals of the National AIDS Strategy, he noted.

Tuberculosis, the leading killer of people living with HIV is also the leading cause of deaths from antibiotic resistance,  Rep.Lucille Elsa Roybal-Allard  (D-Ca), noted, and asked Dr. Fauci for an update on those efforts as well. The NIH leads a working group of agencies and industry to pool effective knowledge and answers toward the development of new tools and medicines he said, and recently completed a report on the work ahead, that will be posted by USAID.

All of that, and more, the careers of new researchers, the quests for new answers to cancers, neuro-degenerative diseases, disabling and life-shortening hereditary conditions, would be endangered by a cut to funding, Dr. Collins explained. At the prompting of Idaho Republican Rep. Simpson, Collins described the impact of the 16 days when stalled Congressional budget negotiations closed the doors of the NIH, “the darkest hour I’ve experienced.” It was a time when scientists were sent home, studies were interrupted and ended, patients were turned away, he said. “It was just, purely, destructive.”

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