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Fully fund NIH [Commentary]

As someone who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2008, I have taken advantage of the incredible research studies at Johns Hopkins Hospital, the University of Maryland Medical Center and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and I'm thankful they're a short drive from my home.

I'm concerned about their ability to continue clinical trials amid budget cuts, however.

The battles in Washington, as in a real battle, create casualties — among them people with diseases and disabilities hoping for medical breakthroughs. And while the recently announced two-year budget deal would put a temporary tourniquet on the sequester, it wouldn't fully stop the drain of critical medical research funding.

I understand that not everything can be a "priority," but medical research must be. The United States will quickly fall behind countries that are investing heavily in medical research, like China. The American breakthroughs currently on hold could be the Chinese breakthroughs of tomorrow.

Adjusted for inflation, the purchasing power of NIH's budget has fallen about 20 percent over the last decade. As a result, far fewer top-tier, highly promising research proposals are being funded — a situation that will only get worse over the next nine years if automatic spending cuts continue.

Medical research has long been a bi-partisan issue (diseases don't have a party affiliation), and it should remain that way. I'm calling on the Maryland Congressional delegation to work with both Democratic and Republican leadership to make research a top priority for the people of Maryland: Fully fund the NIH, replace the sequester, and put a stop to America's slide in this area.

Keep in mind that medical research isn't just "spending" — it's an investment with extremely positive economic impact. For example, sequencing the human genome cost around $3.8 billion but generated $800 billion in economic activity as of 2010.

In fiscal year 2012, Maryland received $1.6 billion from NIH. The recipients included Johns Hopkins University, which received $646 million, University of Maryland sites, which received $233 million and three independent research organizations, which received another $71 million. In total, 2,321 NIH grants were awarded in Maryland that year. Without that funding, these institutions would no longer be able to recruit talented researchers whose work may lead to medical breakthroughs. These doctors would go elsewhere — perhaps even outside the U.S.

Sequestration has already resulted in 2,300 fewer research grants — fully one quarter of new and competing grants that NIH expects to fund.

Cutting our national investment in research shatters the hopes of people with chronic illness, disabilities or rare diseases, as well as those who will join these ranks in the future. Therapies and cures generate new economic activity, allow people to remain in the workforce and improve quality of life. Take MS as an example. On average, it costs $70,000 per year to live with MS. With nearly half a million Americans affected by the disease, MS costs society more than $30 billion per year in lost wages and medical expenses. The hundreds of thousands of people who have MS —and the millions more who have cancer, heart disease, cystic fibrosis or other conditions — wonder whether budget battles jeopardize the medical research that is their hope for a better tomorrow.

As recently as two decades ago, no medications were available to treat MS. Today, 10 FDA-approved therapies are available, and other new treatments are in the pipeline, thanks to discoveries funded in part by the NIH and the National MS Society. Cutting back on the federal research investment will slow progress toward a world free of MS.

Inaction has real-life impact. Stalling clinical trials could mean the difference between life and death for some. Delayed approval of new drugs and devices that sit in the pipeline will impact quality of life for many. And lay-offs and lost economic activity will reverberate in a way that could impact us all.

Kathy O. Volk, a Cockeysville resident, is a member of the board of trustees of the Maryland Chapter of the National MS Society and an adjunct professor at Towson University in the College of Education. Her email address is kovolk@gmail.com.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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