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Congress must do its job and provide adequate funding for medical research

For decades, medical research — and the cures and treatments it has discovered — have meant hope for millions of Americans living with disease and disability. But in recent years, those hopes have been clouded as Congress continues to significantly underfund the National Institutes of Health.

The funding agreement for the 2015 fiscal year that Congress approved recently does little to improve the situation. The agreement appropriately includes a boost in funding for Ebola research, but it provides only a small increase in funding for the rest of the NIH’s budget — which was cut by a disabling $1.7 billion two years ago and has been largely flat over the past 10 years. The small increase for 2015 — about one-half of 1 percent — won’t allow NIH funding to even keep pace with inflation.

All of us associated with Oregon Health & Science University — health care providers, scientists and patients — are relieved that Congress at least avoided a government shutdown in approving the agreement. But we are disappointed that the spending bill fails to adequately fund the lifesaving research the NIH supports. And we will continue to call on Congress to fund the NIH appropriately, and give U.S. medical researchers the support they need to lead the world.

For nearly 70 years, the nation’s research investment through the NIH has improved our understanding of the causes of disease, increased life expectancy and enhanced the health and well-being of Americans everywhere. Every day, health care professionals and scientists throughout the nation, including at OHSU, see the hope that medical research brings.

NIH-funded research has led to a decline of more than 60 percent in deaths from heart disease and stroke. NIH-supported advances also have led to a test to predict breast cancer recurrence, the discovery of genetic markers for complex illnesses, improved asthma treatments and the near-elimination of HIV transmission between mother and child.

At OHSU, NIH funding has allowed us to make medical and scientific breakthroughs in cancer, stem cell research and infectious diseases, among many other areas. With funding from the NIH, Brian Druker, director of the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute, helped develop Gleevec, a breakthrough drug for chronic myeloid leukemia that also served as proof that targeted cancer treatment could work.

Patients who once were expected to live three to five years now have a normal life expectancy because of the drug.

In recent years, other OHSU scientists have used NIH funding to make significant advances in the quest to employ stem cells to cure disease, in uncovering the epigenetic basis for chronic diseases, and in developing a vaccine that may someday wipe out HIV infection from the body.

Rebuilding the NIH budget also would be good for our country’s fiscal health. The research funded by NIH that mostly occurs at our nation’s medical schools and teaching hospitals creates skilled jobs, new products, and improved technologies. In 2012, NIH-funded research supported more than 400,000 jobs across the country.

Last year, the federal government provided OHSU scientists with $272 million in support for medical research, including $232 million from the NIH. That money not only helps our scientists continually make advances in treating and curing disease, it also provides a significant economic impact for the state of Oregon — an economic impact that was measured at more than $600 million for the 2009 fiscal year. The economic impact is undoubtedly larger today.

But this issue is about much more than economic impact, of course. This issue is about treating disease, curing disease — and providing hope.

Americans want cures, not cuts. OHSU and the nation’s medical schools and teaching hospitals urge Congress to restore the NIH budget and reaffirm medical research as a national priority.

The nation’s patients are depending on it.

Joe Robertson is the president of Oregon Health & Science University.

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