Lack of funding threatens future of medical research, doctors say

Posted at 9:52 PM, May 27, 2015
and last updated 2015-05-27 23:52:24-04

SALT LAKE CITY -- In March of 2014, Dr. Vivian Lee testified before Congress about the growing financial problem plaguing the medical community.

Fast forward to today -- that problem only seems to be getting bigger.

“We have the brain power. We have the expertise. We have the strong desire to solve all those problems. We just need some more funding,” Lee said.

It’s why the Dean of the School of Medicine at the University of Utah co-authored a new report on the issue, along with 18 other medical school deans around country.  Published in Science Translational Medicine, the three-page document stated “unstable funding for biomedical research has created a hostile working environment.”

Research gets its funding from multiple places, including federal, state, tuition and clinical revenue. However, over the last few years, the burden of cost has shifted more onto research universities.

For example, according to Lee, the U used to spend about 25 cents for every dollar of research support they received. On average, now, universities across the country spend about 53 cents.

“It’s a significant jump, and it just means that it holds us back from doing all the great research that we really need to do,” Lee said. “The rising powers economically are investing in research and some of them are pulling some of our top minds overseas. We never saw that happen in the past.”

It’s a concern echoed in the labs of the school’s Department of Human Genetics.

A few years ago, the university launched the Utah Genome Project, an initiative aimed at finding the genetic causes for diseases.  It’s a topic thrust into the spotlight recently by celebrities, like Angelina Jolie, who relied on genetic testing made possible by what’s happening at the U.

But given funding constraints, the future is uncertain.

“I’ve been here for 36 years. This is the worst funding climate I’ve ever seen,” said Lynn Jorde, executive director of the project.

While the genetics department houses approximately 300-400 people, Jorde fears they could someday lose scientists to more profitable opportunities.

“Young people are afraid to go into science. The funding isn’t there,” Jorde explained. “The security isn’t there, so we’re losing some of our very best fine, young minds.”

During Lee’s testimony in 2014, she asked lawmakers in Washington to fund the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the largest source of research funding in the country, with $32 billion for fiscal year 2015.

In order to bring security to the medical community, Lee and others believe a business model that is indexed to the “relevant rate of inflation” needs to be established. In conjunction with that, a budget projected over several years would allow the federal source of money, as well as universities, to better plan for the future.

“I’m worried that that bright, young person who could help us cure cancer is going to go off and decide to do some Internet startup,” Lee said.