Straight Talk: The Future of Medical and Health Research 

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Nearly 200 scientists and stakeholders in the research community attended Research!America’s National Health Research Forum on September 12, at the Newseum’s Knight Conference Center in Washington, DC. Research!America’s President and CEO, Mary Woolley, opened the program. “The theme for this program is straight talk, and that is exactly what we need these days. Our goal today is to speak candidly about the future of medical and health research,” said Ms. Woolley.

Ms. Woolley then turned the lectern over to Bart Peterson, JD, Senior Vice President of Corporate Affairs and Communications at Eli Lilly and Company, who delivered a brief keynote speech. Mr. Peterson’s message, one that reverberated throughout much of the program, was a challenge to increase research funding. “Public funding for research, which is so threatened today, is absolutely critical to the future and we care about that as much from the private sector perspective as anybody else does,” said Mr. Peterson.

Making the Best Use of Limited Resources

Eleanor Clift, Contributing Editor for Newsweek and The Daily Beast, moderated the first of three panels, which included FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, MD. The discussion focused on innovation within the pharmaceutical industry and the relationship between companies and regulators. When Ms. Clift asked about the challenges facing the FDA, Dr. Hamburg said, “Our role is not only to work with the scientific community both in academia and in industry to really identify where are the promises in science and technology today and how we can leverage them into real-world products. [But also], how can we do the research from the very beginning in ways that support the regulatory requirements and enable us to really make the best use of now increasingly limited dollars as we build on discoveries and move them across the finish line into the products that matter for people?”

Dr. Hamburg also pointed out that funding cuts, especially the sequestration cuts relating to industry-paid user fees, have been detrimental to the FDA. “It was an unexpected and unfortunate hit, people are stretched very thin,” she said. According to Dr. Hamburg, the consequential extra heavy workload could lead to a “loss of talented workers. My goal as FDA commissioner is to help make sure we are delivering on the promises of science and technology, and today I see putting a national strategy in place as part of my mission even though many of the pieces of this ecosystem ... are far outside our area of activity but essential to it.”

The panel members unanimously stressed the importance of pursuing novel therapeutic avenues that, despite risk, offer innovate ways to approach cancer. The group ended with a clarion call for more research dollars.

Sequester Impacts Public Health

The second panel moderated by CBS News correspondent Michelle Miller, took a panoramic view of American health care, much of which was not cancer-specific. One interesting observation pertaining to prevention was made by Tom Frieden, MD, MPH, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). He noted that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act would help bring preventive measures to people who otherwise would not have access to them. For instance, a recent study found that only 32% of American girls were current on their human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccinations, commenting that the HPV vaccination rate in Rwanda is 85%. According to Dr. Frieden, budget cuts and sequestration are hampering the CDC’s ability to distribute HPV vaccines to people who need them. As a result, he said, “there will be more cases of cervical cancer.”

Research and Innovation

The third panel discussion focused on fostering an innovation culture and research as a national priority. This was moderated by Norman Ornstein, PhD, Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and a Contributing Editor for National Journal and The Atlantic. Dr. Orenstein set the tone by charging Washington, DC’s polarized political climate for the decline in research funding.  

Francis Collins, MD, PhD, Director of the National Institutes of Health stressed that while scientific progress is at a level he could not have foreseen 10 years ago, it suffers from lifeless support in Congress. Once again, sequestration was blamed. Dr. Collins said that it alone would force NIH to cut 650 research projects in Fiscal Year 2014. “Which of those investigators would have been the Nobel Prize winner we would celebrate in 20 years? We’ll never know,” Dr. Collins said.

The take-away message was to alert Congress to the perils of cutting biomedical research funding. Tony Coles, MD, Chairman and CEO of Onyx Pharmaceuticals said that while public-private partnerships are important in the drug development process, these cannot replace the value of government-supported research. ■