Op-Ed

With underfunding of NIH, countless lost opportunities in NC

Few states are a better example of the economic dividend of medical research than North Carolina. Organizations in North Carolina received more than 2,000 grants from the National Institutes of Health in 2014 totaling nearly $1 billion. These grants supported the work of researchers at our state’s great academic institutions, including UNC-Chapel Hill, Duke, N.C. State and Wake Forest, to discover cures for our most vexing diseases.

For example, at Duke University, researchers with funding from NIH recently reported findings that mark a major step forward in developing a vaccine for congenital cytomegalovirus, one of the world’s leading infectious causes of birth defects. At Wake Forest, a recent NIH grant is enabling researchers to study knee osteoarthritis and successful treatment measures in community-based settings. Knee osteoarthritis is a leading cause of disability in older adults and affects more than 250 million people worldwide.

NIH grants also supported research at many companies, including the promising young biotech companies that our state is so good at producing. N.C. State spin-out Agile Sciences is one example. It is developing nontoxic molecules to disperse biofilms, colonies of bacteria that stick to surfaces and can be dangerous to human health and costly in agricultural and industrial settings. NIH funding is helping Agile to commercialize its Agilyte® molecule that treats bacterial infections associated with chronic wounds.

Beyond supporting important research, NIH grants support our state economy, contributing to the creation of jobs and economic activity. NIH research funding supports more than 19,000 jobs in North Carolina. These include research jobs – such as those for principal investigators, research teams and lab technicians – and jobs at materials and equipment manufacturers and others whose goods or services help enable this research. We can attribute nearly $2.5 billion in economic activity in North Carolina to the NIH research funding received here. NIH spending spurs economic activity as the discoveries NIH finances move to commercial applications involving new medicines, tests, procedures and devices.

Only five states can count more NIH-supported jobs and economic activity than North Carolina. This is why it is so important for our representatives in Congress to be a strong voice for NIH funding. We are fortunate that our senior senator, Richard Burr, is a long-time champion of this cause. For several years, he has been the lead author of a letter calling on Senate appropriators to provide strong funding for the NIH. Sen. Thom Tillis co-signed this year’s letter as well.

Working to increase annual appropriations for the NIH is an essential endeavor, and I am grateful that our senators are part of this effort. However, annual appropriations alone can’t fix the past 12 years of NIH underfunding. Today, the NIH actually has 25 percent less purchasing power than in 2003. For Americans this means countless lost opportunities for making progress against our most vexing diseases, threatening our global leadership in biomedical research and the life sciences. For North Carolinians, it also means lost jobs and economic activity.

The only way for the NIH to catch up from years of underfunding and keep up with the pace of medical innovation and public health needs is through a program of guaranteed multi-year funding that supplements strong annual appropriations. The recently passed House 21st Century Cures bill included $8.75 billion of such incremental NIH funding spread over five years. The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee is writing a medical innovation bill that hopefully will address the urgent need for guaranteed multi-year funding of biomedical research. It is just the kind of rare opportunity that North Carolina has been waiting for.

The type of legislative movement happening recently in the House and Senate to strengthen the NIH budget doesn’t happen very often. The invaluable leadership that Burr has brought to this issue is needed now more than ever. Groundbreaking cures depend on it, and North Carolina’s economy depends on it.

Charles Sanders is chairman of the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health and former chairman and CEO of GlaxoSmithKline.

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