BUDGET CUTS THREATEN PROMISING BLOOD DISEASE RESEARCH

FEATURING: Renhao Li, PhD, Associate Professor, Department of Pediatrics and Division of Hematology/Oncology, Emory University School of Medicine, Atlanta, Georgia

“BAND-AIDS” OF THE BLOODSTREAM

When we cut ourselves or suffer a more serious injury to a blood vessel, platelets help to form a clot over the wound and control bleeding. When people do not have enough platelets in their blood they may be at risk of dangerous bleeding, and in some cases a platelet transfusion is needed to save their lives. Approximately 2.2 million platelet doses are transfused annually in the United States.    

While platelet transfusion is an effective form of treatment, maintaining an adequate platelet supply to meet constant demand is challenging. What’s more, donor platelets only last about five days, a short shelf life compared to other blood products, such as plasma and red blood cells. For this reason, researchers remain focused on finding ways to extend platelet shelf life to meet demand. 

Renhao Li, PhD, of Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta is one of the many scientists studying  platelets., He and his colleagues recently discovered how platelets sense and respond to blood flow at the molecular level, and how changes in physiological shear, or the force of flow, affect platelet function and clearance. For most of his career, Dr. Li has received continuous funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for his platelet research. As he explained:

NIH funding has been vital to my career. It has provided stability to my research program by affording my lab the resources and time to acquire and develop novel reagents and tools required for our research. Just as importantly, NIH support has afforded my lab the luxury to perform experiments necessary to rule out other incorrect models. 

CUTS DETER RESEARCH TO EXTEND PLATELET SHELF LIFE

After receiving NIH funding for his research for more than a decade, in 2013 and 2014 several of Dr. Li’s funding renewal applications were rejected as a result of sequestration, leaving the lab’s work hanging in the balance. These severe NIH budget cuts, part of more than a decade of steadily declining funding, forced NIH to fund approximately 640 fewer competitive research project grants or “R01s” in 2013 than the agency funded the previous year.  The combination of fewer NIH grant dollars and many meritorious research project grant proposals has led to vigorous competition for NIH awards, preventing many from receiving vital financial support. Some hematology research labs have been forced to shut their doors as a result, creating even more competition— for jobs, in addition to grants —throughout the field. As Dr. Li explained: 

I have noticed a flurry of over-qualified candidates applying for the entry- or mid-level research technician positions. Often these candidates are from labs that recently closed or lost funding.

Upon receiving notification that his second NIH grant renewal application in two years was not funded at first submission, Dr. Li applied for and received a one-year “Bridge Grant” from the American Society of Hematology (ASH). The ASH Bridge Grant, accompanied by partially matched funds from his institution, provided Dr. Li with the short-term support necessary to hire needed staff and seamlessly continue his work. After gathering additional data and bolstering his NIH grant submission, Dr. Li’s work received NIH funding in the summer of 2015. 

Federal budget cuts could have halted the ongoing work of my laboratory and the jobs of my research staff. I am very grateful for the ASH Bridge Grant, which allowed us to continue our work to improve the utility of platelets and platelet therapy for patients while we awaited renewal of our NIH grant. 

While supplemental grants may help temporarily sustain the important studies of Dr. Li and other researchers, the NIH is an irreplaceable partner and must be funded as such. Sequestration must be ended so the agency must be given the resources to support investigators seeking to develop new treatments for patients whose lives depend on biomedical innovation in America and around the world.


AUTHOR
American Society of Hematology

SOURCES
i. Whitaker BI. The 2011 National Blood Collection and Utilization Survey Report. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; 2013. Accessed at www.hhs.gov/ash/bloodsafety /2011-nbcus.pdf on 24 June 2015.

ii. "Fact sheet: Impact of Sequestration on the National Institutes of Health." U.S National Library of Medicine. U.S. National Library of Medicine, 3 June 2014. Web. 19 Mar. 2014. .