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Grant cuts by March of Dimes imperil research at Johns Hopkins and elsewhere

The March of Dimes Foundation unexpectedly cut existing grant awards, jeopardizing research into 37 medical projects across the country, including two at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

At Johns Hopkins, research into microcephaly, a birth defect that causes children to have abnormally small heads and stunts brain development, is in peril, said Andrew Holland, an associate professor of molecular biology and genetics. His research, which received about $83,000 of a $250,000 March of Dimes grant, has led him to believe that the Zika virus could cause the disease.

His work likely will not continue.

“We’ve uncovered what we believe is the molecular basis,” said Holland, who is scrambling to save two jobs and laboratory animals. “This is the most important work I have ever done.

It is uncommon for a nonprofit organization to cancel grants so abruptly, said Marc Kastner, president of California-based Science Philanthropy Alliance, an organization that advises research funders.

“I have never heard of a case where commitments are not fulfilled,” Kastner said. “To get scientists working on a project and then cut them off is wasteful and creates enormous hardship.”

The cuts come as the nonprofit’s donations have decreased in past years.

The March of Dimes funded around $20 million in research in 2017 and approximately $3 million was cut from research programs in 2018, said Kelle Moley, its chief scientific officer.

Moley also said the organization is shifting resources to combat preterm birth rates, which have jumped for three years and is the leading cause of newborn deaths.

The nonprofit “had to make difficult decisions about where to focus resources,” she added.

“To ensure we can make the greatest impact on our mission we are investing in programs that directly address the biggest threats to the health of moms and babies,” Moley said in a statement. “Recent changes in philanthropy and disruptions to the economy have been challenging to many nonprofits, including March of Dimes.”

Researchers across the country, Holland said, received emails last week saying money for their three-year grants would end in July.

“It’s pretty unheard of to end a grant without prior notice,” he said. “The funding ended Wednesday.”

The March of Dimes should have warned scientists that cuts would be coming, especially with years of research in pipelines, Holland said. He said it is nearly impossible to find money quickly to sustain programs, often taking a year or longer.

Another researcher at Johns Hopkins lost money.

Robert Johnston, a developmental biologist, said he lost about $180,000 of a $270,000 grant. He had been studying gene regulation in flies that might explain the impact on some chromosomes in women.

“We can’t follow up on this exciting work,” he said. “We’re scrambling. It’s a tough thing.”

Dave Damond, March of Dimes’ chief financial officer, said he understands the frustrations of researchers. But the organization, he said, had to “prioritize” where it sent money.

“It’s about living within our budget,” he said. “We owe it to our donors to do that.”

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