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David S. Wilkes column: NIH funding cuts threaten local and national economic health

David S. Wilkes column: NIH funding cuts threaten local and national economic health

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Newly released federal budget proposals would cut $1.2 billion from this year’s National Institutes of Health (NIH) budget and almost $6 billion from next year’s NIH budget. If approved, these cuts will not only make it harder to find new cures and provide better patient care, it will make it tougher to create new jobs.

For research centers like the University of Virginia School of Medicine, NIH funding is crucial to supporting medical research that provides the scientific understanding needed to develop new and better treatments for patients.

In 2016 alone, U.Va. received more than $126 million in NIH funding — accounting for around 60 percent of our research funding — and some of U.Va.’s highest-profile breakthroughs have occurred thanks to NIH support.

For example, an NIH grant helped U.Va. researchers led by Jonathan Kipnis and Antoine Louveau discover a link between the brain and immune system thought not to exist. This is transforming our understanding of the brain and could lead to new treatments and cures for a host of neurological diseases, including autism and Alzheimer’s disease.

As we speak, an NIH-supported clinical trial led by Boris Kovatchev and Stacey Anderson of the U.Va. Center for Diabetes Technology is providing the final tests for a U.Va.-developed artificial pancreas that could enable people with Type 1 diabetes to monitor and regulate blood-sugar levels automatically.


Developing new and improved treatments based on our medical research can also lead to new companies and new jobs.

In 2016, the National Venture Capital Association ranked Charlottesville as the fastest-growing venture capital ecosystem in the U.S., and medical start-ups are important part of that boom.

U.Va. Innovation, which helps bring U.Va. research discoveries to the marketplace, has identified more than 50 active companies advancing U.Va. discoveries. Many of those companies were founded to develop U.Va. medical research breakthroughs.

A study conducted by the research firm Tripp Umbach found that in fiscal year 2015, U.Va. School of Medicine’s research generated an economic impact to Virginia of $425.4 million. That economic impact would be greatly diminished if NIH funding were slashed.

At the same time, we know that we cannot rely solely on federal funding for research. Through its Strategic Investment Fund, U.Va. provides significant funding for our researchers, and we have also successfully sought funding from a variety of outside sources that include the pharmaceutical industry and philanthropic donors.

For example, we have worked with the Focused Ultrasound Foundation to research, develop and gain U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval for the use of focused ultrasound — a scalpel-free form of brain surgery — to treat essential tremor, a common movement disorder.


In the months and years to come, U.Va. will continue to seek new sources of funding to support the research of our dedicated scientists. However, it will always be challenging to attract private funding for the basic science research that provides the first steps toward developing cures.

When nonprofits or medical companies provide research dollars, they are generally seeking to support a new drug, device, or treatment that will provide a rapid return on their investment.

But developing those new treatments is not possible without understanding how a disease attacks the body. That is why maintaining federal spending for medical research, such as the link between the brain and the immune system, is so critical.

Our ability to provide the best care for our patients depends on research breakthroughs and the NIH money that supports them. No other funding source will be able to replace it, and the federal government’s investment will pay for itself many times over in both better health and better jobs.

Dr. David S. Wilkes is Dean of University of Virginia School of Medicine.

Developing new treatments is not possible without understanding how a disease attacks the body.


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