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Why America can never give up on medical research

A researcher examines a petri dish.

By Bill Frist

In America we spend roughly $140 billion on medical research every year. One-third of that is from the federal government. Over half — 54 percent — comes from industry, and nearly all the rest comes from universities, philanthropic foundations, independent research institutions, and what most statisticians labels imply as “Other.” The contributions of these voluntary, nongovernment, and nonprofit institutions is calculated, then shrugged off, as people return to talking about the worth of federal NIH funding or deride the evils of pharmaceutical companies.

But these contributions matter and should be celebrated. Groups like the Texas Biomedical Research Institute, the Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation, or the National MS Society are not minor supporters, but leaders in their field.

The Texas Biomedical Research Institute helped lead the San Antonio biomedical industry not only to international prominence but an economic force that employs one in six people living in the nation’s seventh most populous city.

The Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation, started by 13 doctors, serves as one of the nation’s premier cardiovascular research institutes, helping establish a standardized protocol for ER patients with an ongoing heart attack that resulted in one of the highest survival rates in the country and is one of only four NIH designated Cardiovascular Stem Cell Research Centers in the country. They also provide robust education and awareness programs, such as the project in New Ulm, Minn., working with grocers, restaurants, local government, city planners, and doctors to reduce heart disease by attacking on all fronts of a community.

The National MS Society actively drives research in all stages, including early discovery, translational research, and clinical trials. Its funding has helped many cutting-edge researchers in the field, directly contributed to the development of disease-modifying agents like Interferons and Betaseron, and helped create many potential therapies for MS.

But regardless of where the money comes from, medical research is an absolute good for the country. Medical research makes Americans and the rest of the world healthier, grows our economy, and produces valuable jobs here at home.

Medical research, the most advanced of which is often done here in the U.S., has saved millions of lives over the last few decades. Death rates from heart disease, the number one killer in the U.S., have dropped 65 percent in the last 60 years. In the last decade alone, cancer mortality has dropped 12 percent and deaths from strokes 34 percent. Many forms of childhood cancer and HIV/AIDS are no longer death sentences. The benefits of this research are saving millions of American lives and tens of millions around the world.

Medical research also serves as a boon to the entire economy. Let’s take just one example: The Human Genome Project. The long, difficult, and costly process to map a complete human genome had no clear commercial outcome. Its aim was almost purely scientific, not to create a vaccine for a deadly disease or design a new product like home computers. But its impact has been astounding. The United States government spent $3.8 billion funding this program, but a recent report revealed that every $1 of funding reaped $141 in economic returns. That’s a staggering $796 billion return.

How? The HGP has made possible new approaches to diagnosing rare diseases, the use of genetic information to personalize drug prescribing and dosage, and identification of gene variants that could increase the risk of developing certain diseases such as diabetes and obesity. It has created an entire new field of personalized medicine and spurred the next great wave of medical innovations.

Medical research as a whole also displays fantastic returns. In 2010 alone, the most recent year we have accurate numbers for, medical research accounted for $69 billion worth of economic activity here in America and $90 billion worth of exports. Not to mention NIH funding alone created 480,000 new, good jobs. All in one year.

And there is so much more left to do. In 2010, Alzheimer’s afflicted 5 million Americans and cost $172 billion to treat. Both of these numbers are expected to skyrocket to the tune of 13.5 million people and a cumulative $20 trillion over the next 40 years. Think of the families mended, tragedy averted, and bankrupting bills avoided with a major breakthrough in research.

But these impressive numbers are dependent on America maintaining its competitive edge. We still lead the world in patents and overall research, but China is gaining fast, having recently passed Japan in R&D investment for the number two spot — and they have no intention of stopping there. Next year, China will increase its medical research funding by 25 percent and its government alone will spend $309 billion over the next five years. The NIH currently spends about $30 billion. Cutting-edge jobs, exports, top talent, and industries are only located in the most advanced country and we literally cannot afford to rest on our laurels. When Alzheimer’s is cured, when HIV is cured, when MS is cured, I want it to be America that discovers the breakthrough and shares it with the world. One thing is for sure: Whichever country does will undoubtedly be the new global leader. Let’s hope that’s us.

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