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Mass. medical researchers’ funds at risk

Civilian, defense grants crucial

WASHINGTON — Massachusetts’ hospitals and research universities, twin pillars of the state economy, face a double-barreled threat from looming cuts in federal funding if lawmakers do not compromise on a plan to curb the national debt by the end of the year.

Not only does Massachusetts face deep cuts in medical research grants from agencies like the National Institutes of Health, but also in health research funded under a little known Defense Department program.

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Massachusetts receives more than $3 billion a year in medical research funding, more per capita than any other state, making it unusually vulnerable to the impending cuts. At risk is research into basic life science, as well as diseases.

A recent report from the American Association for the Advancement of Science estimates that Massachusetts stands to lose $3.1 billion – a decrease of 8.4 percent — in military and civilian federal research and development grants over the next five years, roughly half of which goes to hospitals and universities for medical research, if the automatic cuts known as sequestration occur.

“We basically get hit from both sides,” said John Erwin, executive director of the Conference of Boston Teaching Hospitals. “People don’t think of medical research when they think of defense dollars.”

There is also a risk to the Massachusetts economy. “When most people hear defense cuts, they think tanks and airplanes and submarines, but anything that reduces research on either side will have a differentially greater impact on the Massachusetts economy,” said Dr. Gene Lindsey, chief executive of Atrius Health and Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates. “Most of the public says, ‘What’s the big deal?’ But it will impact them.”

The prospect of sequestration has ignited a fresh flurry of lobbying that has university presidents and hospital executives firing off letters to the state’s congressional delegation, pleading that research be insulated from across-the-board cuts.

‘It makes no sense not to ensure that the investment in medical research remains untouched by any of the formulas that we constructed.’

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Similar efforts are underway nationally, with the launch of a new website this week by the nation’s top research universities outlining how sequestration will hurt them. The American Association for the Advancement of Science, which calculated the state-by-state impact of the cuts, held a briefing last week with the House Research and Development Caucus, which includes five Massachusetts representatives.

And posters plastering subway trains urge commuters in Washington and the Maryland and Virginia suburbs to contact their Congress members to invest in research. The ad campaign, featuring a pill bottle with the warning label “Washington politics just might kill you,” is sponsored by a coalition of scientific and medical societies such as the Association of American Medical Colleges and the Association of Independent Research Universities.

Representative Edward Markey, Democrat of Malden, said he met recently with the presidents of Harvard, MIT, Boston University, and Northeastern, all of whom lobbied him to protect medical and scientific research from cuts.

“It’s possible that some member of the military brass will say I’d rather save these missiles over here than medical research, but it makes no sense not to ensure that the investment in medical research remains untouched by any of the formulas that we constructed to deal with the fiscal cliff,” Markey said.

Under the 2011 debt deal, defense discretionary spending is slated to be cut by $55 billion in the coming year and domestic discretionary spending will be hit by up to $38 billion. The doomsday scenario is scheduled to begin Jan. 2 because a bipartisan congressional committee charged with coming up with a deficit reduction plan last year failed.

President Obama met with congressional leaders, including Republican John Boehner, the House speaker, last Friday to begin hashing out a new deal. They emerged optimistic but deep ideological divides over taxes on the rich and other issues threaten to derail the negotiations at any moment.

In 2013 alone, Massachusetts is slated under sequestration to lose $275 million of the $2.5 billion it receives from the NIH, Markey said. Among the many pots of federal research grants at risk is the $38.6 million the state got last fiscal year from the Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs funded by the Department of Defense, which, like other defense programs, will be slashed by 9.4 percent under sequestration.

The program, which began in 1993 to fund disease-specific research not supported by the NIH, is appropriated by Congress each year for research on a wide spectrum of diseases including breast cancer, prostate cancer, Alzheimer’s, and autism. Massachusetts has won $507.5 million in Pentagon-funded medical research since the program’s inception.

“It is a critical source of funding for innovative biomedical research that might not receive funding through the traditional NIH process,” said Dr. Elizabeth Nabel, president of Brigham and Women’s Hospital and former director of the NIH’s National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

The Brigham currently receives $6.8 million for five Pentagon grants for research pertaining to breast cancer treatment, the risk factors for ovarian cancer, and molecular markers that identify rapidly advancing versus slow-growing prostate cancer.

A reduction in federal research dollars will be detrimental on many levels, Nabel said, including job losses, the loss of therapeutic discoveries, and the damage to the state’s and country’s reputation as a leader in biomedical research.

For universities, reduced funding means taking on fewer graduate students and postdocs, closing the pipeline to a generation of scientists, said Claude Canizares, vice president for research at MIT, which gets much of its research funding from the Pentagon.

Curbing federal research funding will damage the entire Massachusetts innovation ecosystem, the very reason 150 biotech companies have chosen to locate within a five-minute walk of the MIT campus, said Chris Kaiser, MIT’s provost.

The Department of Defense has funded a BU School of Public Health study on Gulf War illness since 2006. Kimberly Sullivan, a researcher at the School of Public Health, is leading a $5 million study with a consortium of universities to understand the genetics that predispose some veterans to more symptoms of Gulf War illness.

But the four-year project could be cut short if the money dries up.

“Working collaboratively we can really solve these issues with these ailing veterans, but it’s contingent upon getting that funding,” Sullivan said.

The impact of the research cuts will reverberate throughout the Massachusetts economy, and will lead to higher medical costs for the average health consumer, said Lindsey, of Atrius Health.

If research funding goes down, hospitals will compensate by inflating the price of services or making individual hospitalizations more expensive by conducting more tests, he said. That means that “if Mass. General, Beth Israel, the Brigham loses a grant, they’re going to be faced with increasing charges somewhere else that we will pay, or discontinue their research.”

Tracy Jan can be reached at tjan@globe.com.
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