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Threat to funds haunts Boston-area labs

Graduate student Alex Ng tested the size of DNA molecules at Harvard Medical School’s Churchman Lab.

Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

Graduate student Alex Ng tested the size of DNA molecules at Harvard Medical School’s Churchman Lab.

Boston-area teaching hospitals and universities are bracing for deep cuts in the federal funding that has fueled biomedical research for decades, raising fears that breakthrough work on cancer cures, stem cells, gene therapy, and other research will suffer setbacks.

Unless Congress agrees by Dec. 31 on $1.2 trillion in savings to reduce the federal deficit, National Institutes of Health spending will be trimmed by 8.2 percent, or about $2.5 billion annually, according to the Office of Management and Budget projections — part of an across-the-board budget-chopping process known as sequestration.

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If that happens, hundreds of jobs and scores of grant proposals at Massachusetts labs could be lost. Some labs are already reassessing staff levels, and scientists worry they might not be able to proceed with crucial studies of serious diseases such as lung cancer and Alzheimer’s.

There are also fears that collaboration between labs will turn into competition for dwindling dollars, and ambitious young researchers might abandon the field in search of more stable employment.

“It’s like a knife hanging over our heads,” said Bill Chin, executive dean for research at Harvard Medical School. “About a quarter of new grants won’t be funded, and funding will be reduced for current projects that are working on cures for cancer, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and heart disease, all of which have had remarkable advances recently. Ninety percent of our research budget comes from government sources, and the NIH is by far the major source.”

Massachusetts receives more NIH money per capita than any other state, about 10 percent of all grants in recent years. Based on that record, the state stands to lose $200 million to $300 million next year, estimated Kevin Casey, Harvard University’s associate vice president for public affairs.

“It’s very stressful,” said Stirling Churchman, assistant professor of genetics at Harvard Medical. Churchman plans to apply for a $2.5 million NIH grant this fall to continue running her year-old Churchman Lab, which is looking for new ways to understand DNA sequencing. “I have six people working for me, and I see the clock ticking. So I need to have one of these grants in place,” she said.

The reductions would be felt most acutely in the labs of Harvard Medical and its 16 affiliated hospitals, five of which rank among the largest hospital recipients of grants from the NIH’s $30 billion annual budget. Research money would also be pared at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, Tufts University School of Medicine, and Boston University School of Medicine, all of which have hospital affiliates, and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and more than a dozen other schools, hospitals, and independent organizations.

Leaders of these institutions cite the impact of the prospective budget reductions on patients and the region’s economy. Medical research has helped attract a cluster of pharmaceutical companies and biotechnology start-ups eager to license intellectual property that comes from lab discoveries here.

“Cutting the NIH budget in a weak economy is like jettisoning an engine on an airplane that’s losing altitude,” said Peter L. Slavin, president of Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, the nation’s largest hospital recipient of NIH grants. Slavin fears Mass. General alone could lose $30 million a year in NIH funding, starting in January.

Fiscal conservatives in Washington, however, argue that major reductions in federal programs are necessary to rein in a budget deficit that is hampering economic growth and job creation. Even if a so-called fiscal cliff scenario can be averted, they contend, NIH spending needs to be curbed.

Said Barney Keller, spokesman for the Club for Growth, a free-market advocacy group. “With a $1 trillion deficit, we should be asking if the NIH is a core function of government or if it’s doing something the private sector could do. If the states want to invest in scientific research, let them do it.”

The NIH budget, long an important engine of the Boston-area economy, doubled from $15 billion in 1998 to $30 billion in 2003. But since then, annual spending has been relatively flat. At the same time, researchers said, advances in research tools have put scientists on the brink of new medical discoveries.

“If you turn off the spigot for a time, you can’t just turn it back on,” said David Scadden, a professor at Harvard Medical and one of the nation’s top stem cell scientists.

Scadden said budgetary constraints already have forced him to let one person go and freeze two positions in his regenerative biology lab at Mass. General. At staff meetings, he said, ambitious young researchers wonder aloud if they will be able to fulfill their aspirations in medical research, and sometimes talk of doing something else. Some foreign students who were trained in Boston are choosing to return to China or other countries to launch their careers, he said.

“We have a phenomenal ecosystem here,” Scadden said. “Every laboratory is like the United Nations. They’re filled with people from around the world who want to come here. Now the discussion is, ‘What are the other options for me if I can’t pursue my research here?’”

One side effect of the budget cuts may be to intensify competition for scarce NIH money, a potential blow to recent cooperation among organizations. “It’s taken a long time getting people comfortable working together,” said Dana-Farber Cancer Institute’s senior vice president, Lee Nadler, a Harvard Medical dean for clinical and translational research. He runs the Harvard Catalyst program, which pools the clinical expertise of the medical school’s labs and hospital affiliates. “The minute these cuts come in, there’s no room for collaboration anymore,” he said.

Harvard Medical’s Chin said NIH cuts could disproportionately affect junior faculty, who historically have been counted on to develop new research approaches and innovations for curing diseases.

Robert Weisman can be reached at weisman@globe.com.
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