Medical researchers in Michigan brace for $32M cut

Mar 12, 2013 Issues: Economy, Health Care

Longer lines at airports and the end of White House tours matter little to Sheila Cohoon, a Clinton Township mother concerned much more about what automatic federal spending cuts will do to medical research.

Cohoon’s son, 4, has neurofibromatosis 1 (NF1), which causes benign tumors to grow on nerves throughout the body and can lead to blindness, deafness, bone deformities and learning disabilities.

Cohoon said she has been encouraged by University of Michigan Medical School studies of an experimental drug that blocks the NF1 mutation in mice when given it at birth. The possibility the research could be delayed or halted troubles her personally and as the Michigan representative for the Children’s Tumor Foundation.

“As a parent I’m almost in tears,” Cohoon said Monday at an informal talk about how across-the-board federal cuts known as budget sequestration will hurt state programs funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Michigan will lose $31.6 million in NIH funding and about 565 jobs in the areas of medical research and innovation, according to U.S. Rep. Sander Levin (D-Royal Oak), whose district includes part of Macomb County. He met with Cohoon, other health advocacy representatives and medical researchers at Gilda’s Club, Royal Oak, to discuss the ramifications of reducing the NIH budget by 5.1 percent, or $1.6 billion, this year.

Because half the fiscal year has passed, the NIH essentially has to cut 8.7 percent in seven months. U-M stands to lose $19.5 million in that time period, said James Woolliscroft, M.D., dean of the School of Medicine. Hundreds of lab employees could be out of work and their research put on hold.

“Even existing awards are going to be cut and with that cut research that otherwise might have led to a discovery will not happen,” Dr. Woolliscroft said.

Scientists are on the cusp of promising new drugs to help 90 percent of patients with cystic fibrosis and to reverse symptoms of Fragile X, which is the most common inherited cause of developmental disabilities and the most common known cause of autism.

Two weeks ago, Sue Collins-Schroeder learned about the drug for cystic fibrosis entering its third phase of study but she said the good news was tempered by the budget sequestration.

“If this funding is cut, that research will sit on the table,” said Collins-Schroeder, who is development director of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation chapter in Troy and the wife of a patient.

Lives are really on the line, she said.

“If we can’t finish this phase three study, I’m afraid patients will deteriorate to the point they need a transplant and lungs are not easy to transplant. They could end up passing away and we have the science right there. We just need the money to keep pushing it through the trial.”

In addition to current research and drug trials, Ann Schwartz, M.D., deputy center director of the Karmanos Cancer Institute, said she is concerned about the future of the profession.

“I’m afraid we’re going to lose a whole generation of scientists,” she said. “Who is going to come up into an environment where your career is dependent on funding that is hard to get?”

Cindy Handford of the Epilepsy Foundation of Michigan suggested everyone unite under the acronym CDC, which usually stands for the Centers for Disease Control.

“We all have to get together and form the CDC: the Chronic Disease and Disorder Coalition,” Handford said.

Levin said she may be on to something because there is no umbrella organization representing all the research and advocacy groups. For starters, however, he encouraged everyone to sign a letter giving details about what the loss of NIH funding means to their agencies and universities.

Jeffrey Cohen, director of governmental affairs and advocacy for the National Fragile X Foundation, said he would work on the letter.

“With NIH grants cut, we’re looking at the prospect of real, substantive progress being slowed or halted,” he said.