Greg Sorensen

Viewpoints: America is in danger of losing biomedical researchers

Published: Friday, May. 9, 2014 - 12:00 am

Kayla Saikaly was 13 years old when she began bleeding from her nose after a basketball game. She started noticing bruises on her arms and legs. Worried, her parents took her to the doctor, where she was diagnosed with aplastic anemia, meaning her bone marrow wasn’t producing the necessary blood cells. Her doctors recommended a bone marrow transplant, but none of her family members was a match. Eventually, Kayla found herself at Southern California’s City of Hope Hospital, not far from Route 66 in the city of Duarte and, through them, found a bone marrow donor.

Today, a recovering Kayla is back at City of Hope for a special event. Along with hundreds of similar recipients, she’ll finally get a chance to meet the donor who saved her life. This reunion is a moment to celebrate the generosity of bone marrow donors and to marvel at the courage of patients like Kayla.

But it’s also a moment to reflect on the biomedical breakthroughs happening in our country and the significance of the federal funding that makes so much of this critical treatment possible – and how, at a time when America is trying to attract foreign scientists and engineers to our shores to create innovation, we’re failing to do our part to keep American researchers here.

In 2012, the City of Hope alone received nearly 80 grants totaling more than $51 million from the National Institutes of Health, the federal government’s primary vehicle to fund medical research for half a century. NIH funding tops $3 billion in California, and 41 of the state’s 53 congressional districts have at least one recipient.

These grants have sparked tremendous innovations in the biotechnology industry, which employs more than 270,000 people in the state. Federally funded researchers have made strides in sequencing the human genome, reducing cardiovascular disease and developing pioneering approaches to cancer treatment. Just a few weeks ago, researchers at the La Jolla-based Scripps Research Institute – along with the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative – discovered a new vulnerability in HIV that may well help us develop a vaccine.

Yet as NIH Director Francis Collins has said, “These are the best of times and the worst of times for American biomedical research.”

Even as our scientists make breakthroughs believed to be impossible just a few short years ago, severe cuts to the federal budget are crippling our innovation ecosystem. Last year, the Nobel Prize in Medicine was awarded to three scientists – all with California roots – for their research into how cells transport molecules. The announcement came while the federal government – including the NIH – was shut down as a result of short-sighted and irresponsible congressional brinksmanship.

Even with some of the funding restored, the budget cuts known as “sequestration” have reduced the NIH’s budget by $714 million. Due to this belt-tightening, the NIH awarded 640 fewer research grants in 2013. President Barack Obama’s new budget – intended to undo many of the worst impacts of sequestration – would still fund the NIH $100 million less than in 2002. As patients like Kayla across the country can attest, that’s millions of dollars and cents not going to potentially life-saving research.

Even more troublingly, these cuts do not represent just a temporary blip. They threaten to eviscerate the entire research and development infrastructure we’ve painstakingly built in this country over more than a century by sending the signal that we no longer have the will to invest what it takes to lead.

If the first wave of R&D consisted of Americans who trained and worked in the United States, and the second wave was made up of students from abroad studying and working here, we may now be witnessing a third wave – Americans who train here, only to take their talents abroad to conduct their research.

We’ve seen an increase in scientists who seek funding in countries like China, which is increasing its research spending by 20 percent annually even as the United States cuts back. Just as we saw R&D move abroad when manufacturing left America’s shores, American innovation will depart with those talented researchers we turn away for lack of investment. For the sake of America’s future competitiveness, we cannot afford to let that happen.

Private companies like the one I work for can and should step up their R&D efforts to help fill the funding gap. But if Congress doesn’t reset its priorities and invest in the future of American biomedical innovation, then ideology, not ideas, will be the only limits for today’s students.


Greg Sorensen, M.D., a Caltech graduate, is the U.S. chief executive officer of Siemens Healthcare.

Read more articles by Greg Sorensen



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