NIH director, Sen. Roy Blunt discuss research funding in medical school visit

Larry J. Shapiro, MD, executive vice chancellor for medical affairs and dean of the School of Medicine (right), discusses research initiatives at the School of Medicine with (from left) Jeffrey Gordon, MD; U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt; National Institutes of Health Director Francis S. Collins; Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton; and Jennifer Lodge, the university’s vice chancellor for research. The group was on a tour of research facilities on the Medical Campus. (Credit: Robert Boston )

U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt and Francis S. Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, visited Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis this week to talk to researchers, administrators and entrepreneurs about scientific research and the need to boost and sustain federal funding for it.

In his role as director of the NIH, Collins, MD, PhD, has promoted investments in biomedical research as critical to developing life-saving medical treatments and creating high-tech jobs. A physician-geneticist, he has been openly critical of significant cuts to NIH funding, even stating that were it not for the cuts, a vaccine for the Ebola virus might be in use by now.

Blunt, a Republican member of the Senate Appropriations Committee and the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, has touted his longtime backing of the NIH and his belief that federal funding for scientific research should be increased.

“Washington University is critically important to health research in the country,” Blunt said during the visit Wednesday, Oct. 15. “A lot of breakthroughs in health have occurred right here at this university, and we want to continue that. NIH is one of the best investments we can make.”

In a meeting with Collins, Blunt, Chancellor Emeritus William H. Danforth and other supporters of research, Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton stressed that the reduction in funding may cause the United States to slip in areas where it has long led the way.

“If we persist with decreased funding from the NIH, the talent pool we rely on to make critical discoveries in science and medicine will fade away,” Wrighton said. “We need sustained investment in research infrastructure and talent or we’re going to fall behind.

“The support we receive from NIH has huge implications here in St. Louis and globally. Enormously important things are taking place here.”

John Morris, MD, (right) talks about research into Alzheimer’s disease at the School of Medicine. Presenting with him is Alzheimer’s researcher Randall Bateman, MD. (Credit: Robert Boston)

The NIH provided $450.6 million to support research in Missouri in fiscal year 2014, according to NIH figures. Of that, $372 million — more than 80 percent — was awarded to Washington University researchers.

Still, scientists are finding that NIH funding for research is often out of reach. The NIH turns away five out of six grant applicants, making for the lowest success rate for applicants in history, according to Collins.

Such struggles are discouraging to scientists — particularly new, young researchers — in search of cures, new technologies and other discoveries.

“We want to be nimble, innovative and responsive to opportunities,” Collins told Blunt, administrators, entrepreneurs and others at a meeting shortly after Collins arrived on the Medical Campus. “We want to encourage risk-taking and interdisciplinary work.”

Following the meeting, Collins and Blunt met with reporters and then heard about some of the School of Medicine’s major research initiatives.

John Morris, MD, and Randall Bateman, MD, provided an overview of the first drug trial to prevent Alzheimer’s disease in people genetically destined to develop the illness, often at an early age. The international trial, which began in 2012, is being led by Bateman and involves people who do not yet have Alzheimer’s symptoms. It is funded, in part, by NIH.

“We’re off to a great start – there’s hope and there’s promise,” said Bateman. “But I also believe that more resources are likely to be needed to tackle this problem.”

NIH Director Francis S. Collins (middle) admires a guitar made by Richard Wilson, PhD, (left). The music enthusiasts talked guitars after Wilson, Timothy Ley, MD, and Lukas Wartman, MD (right) recounted the sequencing of the first cancer genome for Collins and U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt. (Credit: Robert Boston)

Richard Wilson, PhD, and Timothy Ley, MD, recounted the sequencing of the first cancer genome, pioneered by a large team of Washington University scientists. The endeavor grew out of the NIH-funded Human Genome Project.

“In 2008, everybody thought we were crazy for doing cancer genomes,” said Ley. “We’ve learned a tremendous amount since then.”

That groundbreaking work laid the foundation for more personalized cancer treatments based on tumors’ genetic makeup, an approach the Washington University team employed to save the life of colleague Lukas Wartman, MD. Wartman had suffered a second relapse of leukemia in 2011 and had no more treatment options.

The group also toured the laboratory of Jeffrey Gordon, MD, whose innovative studies of gut microbes and their genes are paving the way to develop new treatments for obesity and childhood malnutrition. His lab’s work is at the intersection of the gut microbiome and nutrition, with a goal of improving human health, particularly among vulnerable people in the developing world.

Collins and Blunt also visited with students in Gordon’s lab who have hopes and dreams of becoming the next generation of scientists to solve tomorrow’s biggest problems.

Washington University graduate student Laura Blanton talks about her work in Jeffrey Gordon’s lab at the School of Medicine. Listening are (from left) NIH Director Francis S. Collins; Larry J. Shapiro, MD; U.S. Sen Roy Blunt; and fellow graduate student Mark Charbonneau. The group was on a tour of medical school facilities. (Credit: Robert Boston)