CUTS TO RESEARCH FUNDING STALL CRITICAL DIABETES RESEARCH

FEATURING: Alan Schneyer, PhD, Research Professor, University of Massachusetts Amherst, Amherst, Massachusetts

DIABETES POSES PUBLIC HEALTH THREAT

As many as three million Americans may have type 1 diabetes (T1D)i and each year, more than 15,000 children and 15,000 adults—approximately 80 people per day—are diagnosed with T1D in the U.S.ii T1D accounts for $14.9 billion in healthcare costs in the U.S. each year.iii

In T1D, a person’s beta cells, located within the pancreas, are destroyed by immune cells so they produce little or no insulin, leaving the patient dependent on insulin treatments for the rest of their life. Without insulin, sugar builds up in the blood, putting people at risk for serious health problems including heart attacks and strokes, kidney problems, circulatory defects that can lead to amputation, sores that don’t heal, and vision problems.

Effective treatments for patients with diabetes are the focus of many research labs across the country, but budget cuts and sequestration have significantly limited the work these labs can do, and in some cases have led to labs closing, halting important and potentially life-saving research.

BUDGET CUTS THWART PROGRESS IN DIABETES DISCOVERIES

Dr. Alan Schneyer, a research professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, was the lead researcher at a National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded lab at Massachusetts General Hospital where his discoveries could pave the way for new therapies for patients with diabetes.

Dr. Schneyer’s team identified a gene in mice that when turned off, allowed them to produce more beta cells than normal. Beta cells make insulin and are the cells that get destroyed in T1D or become dysfunctional in type 2 diabetes.

When his $200,000/year grant wasn’t renewed, Dr. Schneyer had to close his lab and postpone his research. He later took a position at the Pioneer Valley Life Sciences Institute (PVLSI) and continued his research there with funds from PVLSI and another grant from NIH. But as funding continued to get more challenging, the diabetes program at PVLSI was abruptly terminated and he and his team were laid off.

Dr. Schneyer, unwilling to slow progress on potential new treatments, spent six months working in borrowed space at UMass-Amherst where he had been an Adjunct Professor, before he obtained a new research grant from the Juvenile Diabetes Research Fund. His current funding is only sufficient for half-time effort and will run out on August 31, 2014.

He has still not obtained NIH funding for his work, despite submitting a number of grants and finds himself spending less time in the lab pursuing effective therapies for diabetes and more time hunting increasingly elusive funding. Obtaining NIH grants to fund research has become a very difficult process. As Dr. Schneyer explained:

On average, a researcher has to write eight to ten grants to get one. The likelihood of a scientist with a highly-regarded grant application successfully being awarded a grant has dropped from 31.5 percent in 2000 to an historic low of 16.8 percent in 2013.iv

FUTURE RESEARCHERS HAVE FEWER OPPORTUNITIES

The frustration of obtaining grants has turned many prospective researchers away from the field. In addition, because of budget cuts, university positions are fewer and harder to get. Dr. Schneyer says the dwindling workforce means groundbreaking science that could be done, won’t be.

Under this tight funding, even with special assistance, younger scientists have a hard time getting started and often leave the field to pursue other opportunities. Even the brightest students see that the future is grim for employment and when they leave the field, it’s a significant loss. Nobody can predict what research could have led to life-changing cures.

Any further reduction in biomedical research will reduce the general pool of knowledge from which all drug discoveries are derived. So while there may be some new drugs for a time, the pipeline of new discoveries will wither as people leave the workforce. Said Alan:

We are leaving tremendous opportunity on the table in the name of reducing government spending. This means slower drug discovery and development. America leads when we invest in life-saving research and America loses when we don’t.

AUTHOR
Endocrine Society

SOURCES
i Type 1 Diabetes, 2010; Prime Group for JDRF, Mar. 2011

ii. NIDDK: diabetes.niddk.nih.gov/dm/pubs/statistics/index.htm#i_youngpeople

iii. The United States of Diabetes: Challenges and Opportunities in the Decade Ahead, 2010; United Health Group: unitedhealthgroup.com/hrm/UNH_WorkingPaper5.pdf

iv. Salley Rockey, “FY2013 By The Numbers: Research Applications, Funding, and Awards,” Rock Talk, January 10, 2014. http://nexus.od.nih.gov/all/2014/01/10/fy2013-by-the-numbers/ Accessed March 20, 2014.