Health leaders: Proposed federal budget would gut medical research

President Donald Trump’s proposed budget would cripple medical research for chronic and urgent diseases, cost thousands of high-paying jobs and reduce economic activity by billions of dollars, according to health leaders on the national and local level.

At the University of Louisville, the proposed cuts to the National Institutes of Health threaten high-paying jobs, would dampen entrepreneurial activity and undermine the university’s efforts to become a major research institution, said Dr. Craig McClain, a professor of medicine at UofL and associate vice president for health affairs/research.

The president’s proposal would cut NIH funding by $5.8 billion, or 18 percent, to about $26 billion. NIH spending accounts for about 0.9 percent of federal spending.

More than 80 percent of the NIH budget goes to more than 300,000 researchers at more than 2,500 universities, medical schools and other research institutions. About 10 percent of the NIH budget supports projects conducted by nearly 6,000 scientists at the agency’s laboratories in Bethesda, Md.

The agency said that key areas in which NIH-funded discoveries have helped make people healthier include longevity, lower infant mortality rates and better treatments for heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer.

The NIH said that in 2015 it awarded Kentucky institutions nearly $162 million in grants, which supported about 2,800 jobs and generated economic activity of about $418 million. The NIH online database shows that for fiscal 2016, the University of Louisville received 128 grants worth nearly $55 million. Grants ranged from $21,420 to help our understanding of how sensory receptor cells respond to chemical substances and generate a biological signal to $3.2 million to study a gel-based drug delivery system for a potent, broad spectrum antiviral protein. The University of Kentucky in fiscal 2016 received 256 grants, totaling about $96 million, the database shows.

Dr. Craig McClain

The proposed 18 percent cut to NIH funding “would be absolutely mammoth and would have a huge impact,” said McClain.

About two-thirds of the NIH dollars the university receives pay for personnel, while another third goes to the institution to help pay for such expenses as computers, building maintenance and electric bills. Less money from NIH would mean more deferred maintenance on existing buildings and fewer jobs, ranging from janitorial services to medical researchers, McClain told Insider.

Some of the NIH funding pays for technicians or graduate students who may earn as little as $30,000, but the grants also pay for high-wage researchers, who can earn up to nearly $190,000, he said. An 18 percent cut in NIH spending would reduce grants for UofL by $10 million, including about $6.6 million in personnel costs.

A reduction in NIH funds also would be a blow to Louisville’s status as an entrepreneurial hub, he said, as some of the research dollars foster biomedical startups that produce high-paying jobs and medical breakthroughs.

Even worse, McClain said, would be the stifling of critical research at a time that the university has made major strides in its effort to join the ranks of major metropolitan research institutions.

The university conducts critical research on heart disease, spinal cord injuries, liver disease and other conditions, McClain said.

Dr. Laman Gray

Dr. Laman Gray, executive and medical director at the Cardiovascular Innovation Institute in Louisville, said that the president’s proposal also has created lots of uncertainty among medical researchers.

Many of the grants the NIH awards cover multiple years, Gray said, and it’s unclear whether the cuts would affect grants that are awarded from now on or also those multi-year grants that already have been awarded.

The institute employs about 75 and has an annual budget of about $5 million, with the majority of the funds coming from NIH.

Gray said funding medical research “is extra important to help maintain … the leadership that the United States has in developing new technologies and treatments.”

Reducing funding for critical research will have noticeable consequences on the types of treatments and medications that are available, he said.

For example, the institute in the last six months received a $1.8 million grant to study why blood flow in tiny blood vessels gets blocked more often in women than men. Understanding the difference can lead to better therapies to prevent heart attacks, Gray said.

Without the NIH funding, McClain said, a sizable portion of medical research would simply stop. The cuts also would come at a time when NIH funding has remained relatively flat and demands for research dollars is increasing to combat especially chronic illnesses that are becoming more pervasive as the share of older Americans increases.

Finding cures and treatments for those diseases is especially important for Kentuckians, who suffer more from obesity, diabetes and other health problems than the average American, he said.

“There’s a lot of needs out there,” McClain said.

National medical research organizations share the Louisville researchers concerns.

National Health Council CEO Marc Boutin said drastic cuts to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Food and Drug Administration and the NIH “will dramatically impact the development and approval of future life-saving treatments.”

“These cuts will hurt those who need services the most — patients — especially those with chronic diseases and disabilities,” Boutin said in a press release.

Rush Holt, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said in a statement that the proposed cuts would be short-sighted.

“The administration’s proposed cuts would threaten our nation’s ability to advance cures for disease, maintain our technological leadership, ensure a more prosperous energy future and train the next generation of scientists and innovators to address the complex challenges we face today and in the future,” Holt said.

U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell

Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., noted in a statement that President Trump’s proposed budget would increase focus on national security and veterans benefits, which are “steps in the right direction,” but he emphasized that the proposal was but the first step in the process.

A spokesman for the senator told Insider via email that McConnell “has long supported and continues to support NIH funding for Kentucky, including the medical research being conducted at our local universities to create innovative ways to improve the lives and health of Kentuckians

“He also has spoken directly in the past with NIH directors about this critical medical research in our state and the need for this important work to continue. Just last year, he led Senate passage of the CURES legislation that provided nearly $5 billion in funding for NIH research.”

While McConnell would not say whether he would vote for a budget with significant NIH funding cuts, he said he would work with fellow lawmakers “to protect essential Kentucky priorities in the final budget.”

Kentucky’s other U.S. senator, Republican Rand Paul, could not be reached.