Government and Health Care

VAI scientists advocate for biomedical research improvements

Congressman visits GR in support of 21st Century Cures Act.

April 8, 2016
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U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, center, chats with VAI representatives, from left, Hui Shen, Scott Rothbart, Viviane Labrie and Peter Jones. Courtesy VAI/Josh Tyron, SideCar Studios

The National Institutes of Health could get an injection of $2 billion per year for the next five years if the 21st Century Cures Act makes it to President Barack Obama’s desk in the coming months.

U.S. Representative Fred Upton (R-St. Joseph) was in Grand Rapids recently meeting with researchers at Van Andel Institute to build support for the bill, which has already passed the U.S. House of Representatives with a 344-77 vote and is now before the U.S. Senate.

The current timeline for the bill has it reaching the president’s desk as early as the beginning of June.

Upton, who chairs the Energy and Commerce Committee, said since 2013, he and his colleagues have met with stakeholders across the country on listening tours to craft a bill they believe will better enable biomedical researchers to do their jobs and make breakthroughs in their fields.

The bill’s overarching goal is to accelerate the “discovery, development and delivery” of life-saving and life-improving therapies.

“It’s going to streamline the process,” Upton said of the 21st Century Cures Act.

To achieve this, the bill focuses on removing barriers to collaboration between researchers, incorporating patients into the drug development process, advancements in personalized medicine, modernizing clinical trials, providing greater certainty for medical app developers regarding the regulatory path, providing new incentives for the development of drugs for rare diseases, increasing opportunities for young scientists, and improvements to the entire biomedical research ecosystem.

Upton said the bill includes an innovation fund, which is a dedicated and offset funding stream of $1.75 billion per year for five years for the NIH and $110 million per year for five years for the FDA that will allow congressional appropriators to invest additional resources without impacting current budget caps.

Upton has a history of garnering funds for the NIH. He pointed out that, in the 1990s, he helped nearly double its funding, from approximately $15 billion to $30 billion. He noted since that time, however, growth has been mostly flat.

Upton said the bill does not dictate how the NIH is to direct the additional funding it will receive annually. He did say the funding will help ensure younger scientists have an enhanced opportunity to receive grants for their research projects.

Upton acknowledged the average age for a first time grant award for biomedical researchers from the NIH is 42, which can prove a deterrent for many young scientists.

During his visit to the VAI, Upton met with Dr. Peter Jones, VAI research director and chief scientific officer, and three of the institute’s junior scientists, Dr. Hui Shen, 30, Dr. Scott Rothbart, 33, and Dr. Viviane Labrie, 35, to discuss the bill and their experiences as early career scientists.

All three junior scientists acknowledged the difficulties many in their fields face due to not being able to receive grants early on in their careers and the importance of changing that.

“In the latter part of my postdoctoral (work), I wrote and received a K99 Pathway to Independence Award through the National Cancer Institute, and it really, I think, put my résumé on the top of stacks and was a door-opener to the assistant professor position (at VAI),” Rothbart said. “It also provides three years of grant funding as an independent scientist to help you ramp your lab up — get things going and bring personnel into the lab.

“I am certainly a huge advocate for these career development programs and hope the NIH can inject more funds into these kinds of programs that bring talented postdoctoral fellows into independent academic type positions.”

Labrie, who is from Canada and completed her studies at the University of Toronto  and joined VAI in March, said being a recipient of similar young investigator grant programs in Canada helped her advance in her career. She noted increasing those opportunities in the United States is important to the future of biomedical research.

As an example of how things have changed, Jones highlighted the path his career took in comparison to what is typical today.

“I became the associate director for basic research in the Cancer Center when I was 37,” he said. “I was a full professor at 38, and I was running the research program at the Cancer Center. Today, there are people still struggling to get a grant at that age, so I think it is a big push, nationally, to try and sort this out.”

Jones said it is important to VAI to have a balance of researchers in different stages of their careers.

Research institutions are seeing the impact the lack of early career development opportunities is having on recruitment; many would-be researchers are choosing to enter fields where they can advance more quickly. There are concerns about how this could impact biomedical research in the future.

“We are losing people to the temptations of other industries like technology and finance,” Labrie said.

Shen is experiencing the challenge firsthand. She said she is having difficulty recruiting researchers to work in her lab at VAI conducting ovarian cancer research.

In addition to providing ways to help young scientists advance more quickly in their careers, Upton said his bill also puts an emphasis on providing funding for rare disease research.

In fact, part of what inspired the 21st Century Cures Act was a rare disease. Upton said he became familiar with a young family with two daughters, both of whom suffer from spinal muscular atrophy, a rare genetic disorder that results in a lack of control over muscle movement.

Upton said someone with a rare disease deserves a chance at a cure just as much as someone with a more common disease.

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