America's medical researchers may be one step closer to curing our country's most debilitating diseases.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) -- the world's largest biomedical research outfit -- just announced that it will link up with 10 research-based pharmaceutical companies to form the agency's first-ever public-private partnership. Together, they'll pool early-stage research data in order to target some of the biggest threats to our nation's population, including Type-2 diabetes, Alzheimer's and rheumatoid arthritis.
The sad truth is that federal research dollars are scarce -- and are growing more so every year. Last year, the NIH awarded more than 10
percent fewer research grants than it did in 2012 thanks to the automatic "sequestration" cuts that hit the federal budget. Even as
sequestered funds for the NIH were reinstated in early 2014, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) budget increase accounted for only about half of its sequestration losses. In real dollars, the NCI's 2014 budget falls short of its 2009 budget.
According to the NIH's own reports, the sequester delayed progress on everything from targeted cancer drugs to a potential universal flu
vaccine. Worse, almost a quarter of the awards eliminated by the sequester cut short ongoing projects.
All told, the number of research grants is down 20 percent since 2003 -- to its lowest level in 15 years.
The results could end up being tragic. According to the American Society of Clinical Oncology, 27 percent of cancer researchers postponed the launch of a clinical trial in 2013. Such trials are often a cancer patient's only hope for survival.
Medical research is too important to be a casualty of federal belt-tightening.
Fortunately, the private sector can step in to fill the funding gap. Collaborations among all involved in the drug-development process -- from basic researchers to clinicians to pharmaceutical companies -- can ensure that the flow of life-saving treatments doesn't stop when federal research dollars dry up.
Indeed, researchers are now diversifying their funding sources by bringing on commercial partners as well as a new breed of venture
Projects like these don't just provide crucial funding to academics on the cusp of breakthrough discoveries. They also promise to accelerate
the rate at which those discoveries are translated into commercially viable treatments -- ones that can make an impact on the lives of patients.
The pharmaceutical company Pfizer, for instance, has opened its own Centers for Therapeutic Innovation in Boston, New York, San Diego, and San Francisco. These facilities allow academic and drug-company scientists to work side by side toward common research goals.
Massachusetts General Hospital and Brigham and Women's Hospital formed Partners HealthCare to provide industry and healthcare collaborators with a "living laboratory" to test new solutions for improving patient care and accelerate technologies to market. They have also developed the Partners Innovation Fund to bridge the capital gap between discovery and clinical trials.
My own organization, Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute, has installed a new model that continues our longstanding focus on basic
research while accelerating our drug-discovery efforts. We recently announced that we've passed the mid-point of a $500 million fundraising goal to implement a 21st century research model that will expand existing collaborations -- and form new ones -- with pharmaceutical corporations and clinical research hospitals.
While biomedical research institutes are the bedrock of pure basic research, today's dynamic health-care environment requires that we do
more to advance early-stage discoveries. Institutes which further develop promising drug candidates will fill a void left by increasingly risk-averse pharmaceutical companies and in the process produce more clinically relevant results. Scientists who strive beyond the traditional boundaries of basic research will ultimately have a much greater impact on human health.
The private sector and academia are constantly finding new ways to fund life-saving research. With the NIH's announcement, the federal
government is now on board with this approach. These partnerships are the key to saving lives -- now and in the future.
Lucier is the former chairman and CEO of Life Technologies and is currently chairman of the Board for Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute.