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Alzheimer’s funding draws fire at NIH budget hearing

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this blog post incorrectly quoted Senator Tom Harkin as saying, “This $80 billion isn’t happening” for Alzheimer’s research. In fact, Senator Harkin said $80 million, which is the correct amount.

In a 28 March Senate subcommittee hearing that zigzagged from food-allergy studies to personalized medicine and genomics to the mental-health needs of returning veterans, it was Alzheimer’s disease that brought out the strong medicine. More specifically, it was the US$80 million for Alzheimer’s research that US President Barack Obama included last month in his 2013 budget request that seemed to most irk Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, who chairs the subcommittee that oversees the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The sticking point is that the new money, which is intended to step up scientific progress on the neurodegenerative disease, does not appear in the NIH budget because the administration indicated that it would be drawn from the multibillion dollar Prevention and Public Health Fund, established in the Affordable Care Act of 2010 — the health-care reform law now being challenged in the US Supreme Court (see ‘Science at stake as US Supreme Court takes up health care‘).

“I’m a strong supporter of Alzheimer’s research, but this $80 million isn’t happening,” Harkin told NIH director Francis Collins at today’s hearing. “NIH has the flexibility to direct a larger share of its funding to Alzheimer’s research within its own budget assuming two things: one, there are enough scientific opportunities that warrant an increase, and secondly that researchers submit enough high-quality applications.” Harkin later clarified his position: “If your research leads to some proven preventative measures, which we hope it does, then that’s the point where we step in with the Prevention and Public Health Fund,” he said.

The tension underscores the ongoing funding pressure on the field, even as an explosion of Alzheimer’s cases is expected in the United States with the post-war baby-boom generation now fast approaching old age (see ‘Funding crisis hits US ageing research‘). Neither Collins nor Richard Hodes, Director of the NIH Institute on Aging, directly challenged Harkin on the issue, but Collins later told Nature: “We’re poised at a very interesting time in Alzheimer’s research. But, we can’t really make a decision on how to allocate funding until Congress tells us what we’re going to get for [fiscal year] 2013.”

The NIH’s new National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) also met with a mix of support and scrutiny. In his opening statement, Collins stressed the need to reduce the “bottlenecks” in drug development, and Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland pushed Collins for specifics on how NCATS would achieve this goal.

“We have a body of knowledge and a variety of studies that are breakthrough possibilities, but how can we move these through this process and get them into the hands of clinicians? I’ve now heard about promising science and I’m going to continue to support it, but the promise of science needs to have deliverables,” said Mikulski.

“That is our toughest challenge,” replied Collins. “I think what NIH is trying to do is to be sure that we are looking at every possible means of promoting science rapidly.

Harkin also asked about the impact on biomedical research of a looming budget cut that is now poised to go into effect in January 2013 as part of legislation aimed at controlling government spending. The cut would take a 7.8% cut out of the NIH’s budget, Collins said — the equivalent of  2,300 research grants. “It would have implications across the board for both basic and clinical science, but first time investigators would be hit most heavily,” Collins warned.



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