Could the lack of federal funding drive researchers away from lifesaving research?
By Justin Matlick, Hutchinson Center science writer
Dr. Barry Stoddard is developing tools that could revolutionize treatment for cystic fibrosis, sickle-cell anemia and Parkinson’s disease. He’s a leader in his field and has a 20-year track record of success. But the current National Institutes of Health funding climate, compounded by sequestration, is so bad that one of his key projects is in jeopardy and Stoddard thinks there’s a 50-50 chance he’ll be forced to give up his academic research at the end of next year.
“If I can’t find funding, I’ll go find a new career,” he says.
Stoddard’s story illustrates how NIH cuts are hitting home for even the most established researchers, endangering discoveries that could spark the next generation of lifesaving treatments.
His lab is developing what Stoddard calls “molecular guided missiles” – molecules that zero in on a gene mutation that’s causing a disease, cut around it, and insert new instructions. Those instructions make the gene behave normally and eliminate the disease.
The field’s Holy Grail is to develop molecules so precise that they write over a single genetic sequence without affecting any others. Stoddard and his colleagues have accomplished this feat in preliminary experiments and are poised to do it on a much larger scale. But their funding is running dry.
Last fall, Stoddard applied for an NIH grant that would bring in $250,000 a year for four years, covering about half of his lab’s annual budget. The NIH scored his application in the 16th percentile, meaning it was stronger than 84% of the applications submitted. But that wasn’t good enough, even though Stoddard has previously received funding for grants scored in the 20th to 25th percentiles.
He says this is a sign of how the NIH is cranking back on funding to accommodate its budget, which has been flat for years and now has been cut by roughly five percent due to the federal budget sequester.
“At any point in the last two decades of my career, a grant in the 16th percentile would have been funded almost automatically,” Stoddard says.
He rewrote and resubmitted his grant based on the NIH’s feedback, but there’s no guarantee it will get a better score. And he can’t resubmit it again if it doesn’t get funded this time.
Stoddard is scrambling to find a foundation or other outside source to fund his work. But those sources are few and far between and typically don’t cover the costs required to power, light and maintain laboratory space.
“I’m writing grant applications as fast as I can, but it feels a little like blasting at the sky with a shotgun and hoping for something to fall out,” Stoddard says.
He fears that federal cuts to research funding could have a chilling effect. If the sequester isn’t replaced by a more sensible approach, Stoddard expects medical research to dramatically contract. That means giving up not only on new discoveries and medical treatments, but also on the companies and jobs they spawn. Stoddard’s own work has been the foundation for two private companies including Seattle-based Pregenen.
“The amount of money we spend on research is a tiny fraction of the federal budget,” Stoddard says. “The tragic thing about these cuts is that they’re so unnecessary.”
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