Now-shuttered government program nurtured Nobel winners

The American scientists who were awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine Monday have devoted most of their professional lives — up to four decades — to understanding how cells work.

They did it with funding from the same government that tea party Republicans shut down last week.

They did it with support from a federal agency that, because of budget cuts, might not be able to support the next generation of biomedical scientists.

"It would be very difficult to identify a single investigator in the life sciences whose work did not receive support from the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation or another U.S. governmental agency," says Peter Agre, the 64-year-old Johns Hopkins professor who won the Nobel for chemistry in 2003.

Agre is one of those scientists whose work has been sustained over the years by taxpayer-funded programs — at least six of them, including the National Institute of General Medical Science.

The NIGMS has nurtured hundreds of our brightest biomedical minds, including more than 50 Nobel winners over a 40-year period.

Carol Greider, another Hopkins biomedical scientist who won the Nobel (2009), is one of them.

That list now includes Randy W. Schekman and James E. Rothman, with Thomas Sudhof, winners of the 2013 Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology announced Monday in Stockholm.

Schekman started his probes into the exquisite mysteries of "cellular trafficking" — how cells move and deliver molecules where and when the body needs them — in the 1970s. Rothman started in the 1980s.

"Their work," the NIGMS director told a congressional appropriations committee in 2003, "helped explain vital processes such as how insulin is released in pancreatic cells, how organs develop inside embryos, and how viruses infect their hosts."

Such groundbreaking research — the discovery of a fundamental process of cell physiology that could open doors to understanding of how certain diseases develop — took decades. It would not have been possible without the sustained support of NIH, the world's leading funder of medical research.

In addition to conducting clinical trials and other basic investigations in Bethesda, the NIH awards grants to support researchers across the country.

But, of course, the grants program is currently closed. NIH is not accepting new applications. When I phoned the NIGMS on Monday, a message said that because of the government shutdown, no one was available to take my call.

Monday's Nobel announcement — with three, NIH-supported researchers winning the prize — points up what's at stake in the stridently anti-government posture of the tea party and other conservatives, including Maryland Rep. Andy Harris. That bright, educated and committed people engaged in important, potentially life-saving research would have to stop what they're doing — even for an hour or two, never mind a week or more — because of the extreme right's anti-Obamacare agenda is just nuts.

Yet that's where we are.

But the current crisis is not the worst of it, says Hopkins' Agre.

"It is easy to cite the work of highly successful scientists like James Rothman and Randy Schekman as reasons for not interrupting NIH support due to government shutdowns," Agre says. "[But] a more important issue is the degree of difficulty faced by young scientists seeking their first independent support. It concerns me greatly that young scientists with the potential to win future Nobels will give up ambitions and talent in science to seek safer careers to support their families."

Agre is talking about NIH budget cuts — a troubling trend cited Monday when I contacted Alfred Sommer, the dean emeritus of Hopkins' Bloomberg School of Public Health. Sommer is one of Hopkins' most celebrated doctors and wisest owls.

The current shutdown, Sommer says, is absurd.

"But," he quickly adds, "even worse than what will likely be a short-term shutdown, with the harm that will cause, is the longer-term downward drift in NIH funding. This has now been going on for several years, made worse by the sequester."

Ah yes, the sequester — the across-the-board cuts in federal discretionary spending that occurred because of an earlier budget deal Congress failed to reach.

"In real terms," says Sommer, "NIH funding is now 7 percent or so below what it was a couple years ago. As a result, so few approved grants are being funded — around 15 percent when the government was open, none at the moment — that the average age of a recipient of their first 'Investigator Initiated Award' is well into the 40s.

"That means young investigators with families can't get promoted, or feel they have no job security, until they are near middle age. Hence, fewer of the very best young people are making a long-term commitment to academic biomedical research."

The cuts will have long-term, serious consequences, Sommer says.

"It is not just about losing one generation of researchers. By losing them, we will lose those training and mentoring the next generation of researchers, which means the entire biomedical research enterprise in the United States — which has led the world in discoveries resulting in both better preventives and treatment, but also economic returns — runs the risk of being permanently lost."">

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