GOP senators misstate nature of research project they criticize

Baltimore Sun

A Baltimore medical researcher has earned the dubious distinction of landing on a national hit list of questionable stimulus projects. But criticism of her work by a pair of Republican senators might have missed the mark.

"Stimulus Checkup," a watchdog report prepared by Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and released in conjunction with Sen. John McCain of Arizona, gives a misleading explanation of a research project involving the highly addictive drug methamphetamine.

Coburn and McCain, the Senate's leading critics of wasteful pork-barrel spending, accuse the federal government of awarding University of Maryland researchers "nearly $30,000 to determine whether methamphetamine gives female rats an overpowering desire to have sex."

That would indeed be a waste of money, since it's already well-known that a side effect of the frequently abused drug is a heightened sex drive, often leading to risky sexual behavior. The result has been a high rate of unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases, part of a meth-induced epidemic that Coburn, among many others, has railed against.

Mary K. Holder, the Baltimore graduate student who received the research grant from a unit of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, said she hoped that her findings might be helpful in treating meth abuse. Holder said in her grant application that the study would explore "the molecular underpinnings" of meth-induced sexual behavior and would use immunocytochemistry and other advanced techniques to examine the drug's impact on brain cells in rats.

A graduate student in the school's department of pharmacology and experimental therapeutics, Holder received the $28,900 grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse under a program designed to assist pre-doctoral candidates and help ensure that the U.S. has enough highly trained scientists.

A spokeswoman for the University of Maryland School of Medicine said that the Coburn-McCain report did not accurately describe Holder's project. The spokeswoman, Karen Buckelew, said the research initiative was not intended to determine whether methamphetamine stimulates the sex drive of rats, as the senators claimed.

Previous studies of rats by University of Maryland researchers suggest that a heightened sexual drive in humans "is not due to social factors, but rather to the physiological reactions meth causes in the brains of users. Our researchers hope that a better understanding of these physiological factors will lead to real solutions for addicted women, their families and the field of women's health as a whole," she said in an e-mailed response.

Coburn, a practicing obstetrician, has made much of his own medical training throughout his career as a politician. He prefers to be called "doctor," rather than "senator," and has used his authority as a physician in speaking out against the devastation caused by methamphetamine.

In a letter to the secretary of health and human services in 2005, he called meth abuse "the number one concern for many communities around the nation." Describing the drug's extreme dangers for pregnant women, Coburn noted that a "single in utero exposure to methamphetamine during fetal development induces long term damage to the brain and increases the risk of long term abnormal motor development, according to recent research." The senator was particularly scathing in criticizing the federal government for efforts that could be seen as "[t]rivializing or rationalizing the dangers of meth and high risk sexual behavior."

The senators' Dec. 8 report, listing 100 wasteful, "silly and shortsighted" projects around the country, wasn't an effort to trivialize meth abuse, said a Coburn aide.

Coburn's point was that the Baltimore project should not have been funded by a measure designed to stimulate the economy, said press secretary Dan Tatro.

"How does it fit into the stimulus and what the stimulus was designed for?" Tatro said.

In defending the program, President Barack Obama has sought to promote the benefits of $100 billion in science and technology spending included in the $787 billion package.

During a visit to NIH this year, he said that the stimulus program "is not just about creating make-work jobs. It's about creating jobs that will make a lasting difference for our future." The White House has said that health science research grants would lead to job growth in biomedical laboratories and industries that manufacture scientific equipment and pharmaceuticals.

Researchers at the University of Maryland School of Medicine have already received more than $40 million in stimulus money, with more grants still to be awarded, according to university officials. The school is second only to the Johns Hopkins University in the number of research awards to Maryland projects under the program.

The University of Maryland Medical System and the School of Medicine contend that their research creates high-wage, highly skilled jobs, with a combined $5 billion economic impact on the state economy.

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