WASHINGTON — A bill that would direct billions in new funding to the National Institutes of Health in return for changes in the way the Bethesda-based agency awards research grants passed a key legislative hurdle in Congress on Thursday.
Republican Rep. Andy Harris of Baltimore County, one of the most conservative members of the House, is playing a central role in crafting the bipartisan measure.
The legislation, which the House Energy and Commerce Committee approved Thursday in a rare unanimous vote, would direct $10 billion in new funding to the NIH over five years.
Harris, a Johns Hopkins-trained anesthesiologist who was elected to Congress based in part on his opposition to President Barack Obama's health care law, has written several provisions to direct more money to young researchers, who often struggle to compete with established scientists for limited grant funding.
"It makes good sense to invest in curing diseases that are very expensive to our national budget," he said before the legislation was approved by the committee. "We want to fund breakthrough research. … We're looking for the breakout ideas."
The committee approved the legislation after a last-minute squabble over how to pay for its provisions. Members agreed to offset its cost in part by selling 8 million barrels of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, the government's emergency stockpile of crude.
"We're helping new scientists begin their careers in research," Rep. Diana DeGette, a Colorado Democrat who has been working on the bill for more than a year, said this week. "We're going to have the progress that will help us reach patients sooner."
Passage of the legislation, which could reach the House floor as soon as next month, would have significant implications for Maryland, where research institutions received $1.3 billion in NIH funding in 2014 — the fifth-largest share in the country. The Johns Hopkins University is the state's largest beneficiary of medical research money, and one of the largest in the country.
The NIH spends about $30 billion annually on medical research. That level has remained fairly steady in recent years, despite cuts elsewhere in federal spending. But Dr. Francis Collins, the agency's director, and others say the rapid rate of medical inflation has eroded the impact of that spending.
Despite broad bipartisan support, the legislation still faces major obstacles. The Senate committee that oversees health issues is working on a separate bill that will likely look different from the House version. And questions remain about whether the appropriations committees that control spending in Congress will agree to the plan.
"This is a piece of legislation that has a lot of good ideas and can truly have a positive impact," said Benjamin Corb, director of public affairs for the Rockville-based American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. "That's not to say there aren't some concerns with some specific provisions and the community anxiously awaits Congress following through with its commitment to increase funding. "
The legislation, known as the 21st Century Cures Act, focuses primarily on ways to speed the approval of medicine at the Food and Drug Administration — by, for example, allowing the pharmaceutical industry to rely more on "real-world evidence" to determine the efficacy of drugs for new treatments.
Harris, who is not a member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, has been working behind the scenes to draft the provisions on the NIH, including an innovation fund that would direct the $10 billion to the agency. Much of that money would be spent on young investigators in early-stage research and high-risk projects that can lead to breakthroughs.
Harris has long focused on concerns that not enough grant money is reaching young scientists.
Studies suggest that scientists often develop their career-defining ideas in their mid- to late 30s. But the average age of first-time recipients of the most sought-after NIH funding is 42.
Harris is the only current member of Congress who has conducted NIH-funded research.
As a state lawmaker in Annapolis and now in Congress, Harris has been a fiscal hawk, sometimes rejecting budget compromises negotiated by his party's leaders.
In this case, Harris said he supports the new spending in part because lawmakers found a way to pay for it and also because it comes with changes that he said will make the NIH more accountable.
Harris included language in the bill that would require the agency to develop a five-year strategic plan and that spells out that directors of the individual institutes at the NIH are responsible for each grant under their review.
Kim Hoppe, a spokeswoman for Johns Hopkins Medicine, cautioned that the proposal could change significantly in coming months as it works its way through the political process. But in a statement issued before the most recent draft of the bill was released, Hoppe said officials at the institution were pleased policymakers recognized the need for additional biomedical research funding.