Medical research must receive more, better support

The state of Montana may not be the first place that comes to mind when you think of biomedical research, but world class research is taking place right here in Big Sky Country.

Continuation of that research, however, requires funding. As a young scientist working at the McLaughlin Research Institute in Great Falls, it has been very discouraging to see federal funding rates for research continue to decline.

When I started my graduate work in 2006, the funding environment was very different; it was much more optimistic than it is now. At that time, funding for the National Institutes of Health had increased and biotechnology was booming.

Now the atmosphere is more uncertain as even more cuts in the federal budget are being debated.

The impact of research in Montana is not trivial. NIH invested $54 million in Montana in 2010, supporting more than 1,000 jobs at universities, independent research institutes — including MRI — and medical centers across the state. Any threat to this funding has a real impact on scientists and patients and the communities in which they live.

Despite clear public support for investment in medical research, Congress cut funding for NIH by more than $300 million dollars in 2011.

As health care costs continue to increase, research will be even more important. Innovation can improve efficiency and lead to better treatments which in turn will contribute to cost reductions. If we cut off innovation by reducing research funding, we save a few dollars today, but we sacrifice medical progress and a generation of emerging scientists who may discover the next cure or treatment.

Research at MRI focuses on understanding the genetic components of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and prion diseases.

We are identifying early changes in genes and gene products in order to understand disease progression.

The ultimate goal is to find early intervention strategies for human diseases such as Alzheimer’s, which affects 5.4 million people today including 21,000 in Montana.

By 2050, Alzheimer’s is expected to cost the nation more than $1 trillion in health care costs. MRI research can help reverse this trajectory through research that could lead to early intervention and detection. This could have a huge impact on improving the quality of life of countless patients and their families, while reducing the cost burden of this devastating disease.

While my passion for science and doing research has not diminished, I am becoming more disillusioned with finding support for my own research. It has been eye-opening to realize that the funding challenge is going to be the limiting factor in my career — not the actual caliber of the science.

If concerted, long-term investments in research are not made, America will lose an entire generation of young scientists and the critical discoveries that they will make.

We cannot afford to fall further behind ——our health and our leadership in medical innovation are at risk. Both depend on smart investments in medical research.

Brenda Canine is a postdoctoral scientist at the McLaughlin Research Institute in Great Falls and has a Ph.D. in pharmaceutical sciences.