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Originally published November 20, 2014 at 5:06 PM | Page modified November 21, 2014 at 12:32 PM

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Guest: Fund the National Institutes of Health to fight infectious diseases

With health threats spreading over a more highly-connected world, the National Institutes of Health must be better funded, writes guest columnist Alan Aderem.

Special to The Times


IN a global age, as our planet becomes ever more closely connected, many of the world’s most challenging health threats no longer exist only in other geographies — as demonstrated by the recent outbreak of the Ebola virus and its untrammeled journey along Africa’s west coast and beyond, including to the United States.

Yet, while HIV and AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and Ebola continue to ravage populations around the globe, the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) funding for critical infectious disease research has lost nearly 25 percent in purchasing power compared to a decade ago. This has happened during a time when HIV and AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and other infectious diseases continue to kill more than 14 million people annually, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information.

Disease research is some of the most critical and challenging work of the 21st century. Increased funding to the NIH is the single most important component to discovering new vaccines, drugs and cures for the world’s deadliest diseases. According to the World Health Organization, 1.6 million people died from HIV and AIDS and 1.3 million people died from TB in 2012. Curing just one of these diseases could save nearly 15 million lives in the coming decade.

At a time when the biomedical research community is poised to make some of the biggest breakthroughs in the search for cures, vaccines and lifesaving drugs for these diseases, there should be more concern that NIH funding is not keeping pace. For years, the NIH has been the largest source of funding for medical research in the world. According to Dr. Francis Collins, director of the NIH, the organization today is only able to fund one in six applications for scientific research, compared to one in three applications in 2003.

The NIH not only funds research for diseases that threaten people in developing countries, but also funds research that saves lives right here at home. NIH-funded research investigates diseases that are the leading causes of death in the United States, such as cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer’s.

Funding the NIH is good for the economy. According to Collins, for every $1 budgeted to the NIH, the organization returns $2 to the economy in increased bioscience industry productivity. Additionally, according to the NIH, funding to the organization supports more than 400,000 jobs across the country.

NIH funding supports some of the world’s greatest minds, doing some of the greatest science ever conceived. According to the NIH, 144 NIH-funded scientists have received Nobel Prizes for their research. NIH funds have allowed scientists to conduct research that resulted in cracking the human genome; developing the rubella vaccine; and characterizing the Ebola virus (paving the way for Ebola treatment advancements).

U.S. Reps. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., and Brian Higgins, D-N.Y., and U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, have introduced the Accelerating Biomedical Research Act to increase NIH funding, offsetting severe budget caps previously imposed on the agency. Harkin said, “It is time for us on a bipartisan basis to reverse this erosion of support for biomedical research to ensure America’s standing as a world leader in this field.”

Protecting public health is not an issue of politics. The NIH’s mission reaches across party lines. Funding it is an investment in health and our future.

It has never been more important to call upon our leaders to support the NIH. In fact, a new national effort, ACT for NIH: Advancing Cures Together, recently launched to do just that.

We must ensure NIH receives the funding needed for the research that would spark the next generation of scientific breakthroughs and maintain America’s stature as the global leader in medical innovation and advancement.

Alan Aderem is president and director of Seattle BioMed, a nonprofit focusing on infectious disease research. Seattle BioMed and its researchers have been recipients of NIH grants.

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