Cash boost coming for stagnant U.S. medical research

WASHINGTON Tue Feb 17, 2009 4:33pm EST

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - After years of stagnant funding, medical research in the United States is set for a big cash infusion that experts expect will boost work on a range of ailments as well studies involving human embryonic stem cells.

The $787 billion economic stimulus measure President Barack Obama signed on Tuesday includes $10 billion for the National Institutes of Health, with more than $8 billion of it to fund medical studies and the rest to upgrade research facilities.

Leaders in the research community said they expect money to go to scientists looking for better ways to treat cancer, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, obesity, arthritis, Parkinson's disease and other conditions.

"We have been working around the clock to prepare for this possibility, to make the most effective, transparent and immediate use of these extraordinary resources," acting NIH Director Dr. Raynard Kington said in an e-mail.

NIH funding is the lifeblood of much U.S. medical research. NIH funding was doubled from 1998 to 2003 in a push started during the Clinton administration, but stayed flat for the past six years under the Bush administration.

The new money, which advocacy groups say is largely due to Republican Senator Arlen Specter, comes on top of the NIH's normal funding of about $29 billion a year and will be spent over the next two years.

Kington said the NIH will favor grant applications that already have gone through the review process and have "a reasonable expectation of making progress in two years." The NIH has had no permanent leader since Dr. Elias Zerhouni resigned last year.

The advocacy group Research! America, whose members include research universities and hospitals as well as drug companies, said the money could create 70,000 jobs because it will flow to academic and research institutions across the country.

BACKLOG OF RESEARCH

"There is a backlog of approved, excellent research that NIH has not been able to fund. And the money will be spent now in order to get those projects up and running," Mary Woolley, the group's president, said in a telephone interview.

Woolley said that she expects a portion of the money will fund research involving human embryonic stem cells.

Senior Obama adviser David Axelrod said on Sunday Obama will act soon to reverse restrictions put in place in 2001 by former president George W. Bush for human embryonic stem cell research.

Stem cells are the body's master building blocks, able to transform into other types of cells. Many scientists are eager to find out if they can replace cells damaged by disease or injury in conditions such as Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease and spinal cord injuries.

But creating embryonic stem cells for use in such research involves destroying a human embryo, and some politicians and religious leaders have opposed it as unethical.

The Bush policy stifled U.S. research in this field, said Dr. Irving Weissman, the incoming president of the International Society for Stem Cell Research. "There's no doubt that we've lost a lot of time," he said in a telephone interview.

The relative scarcity of NIH money means about 90 percent of research grant requests to the agency are being rejected, said Dr. Otis Brawley, chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society and a former senior NIH official.

"The discoveries are starting to dry up," Brawley said.

Dr. Raymond Gibbons of the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, former president of American Heart Association, said the sluggish NIH funding also has made a research career less attractive to many talented young scientists.

"The effect of the stagnation has been enormous," he said.

(Editing by Maggie Fox and Jackie Frank)

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