HEART DISEASE RESEARCH IN TROUBLE

FEATURING: Steven R. Houser, Director, Cardiovascular Research Center, Department of Physiology, Temple University and President-Elect of the American Heart Association

A PROMISING NEW APPROACH, BUT…

During the last decade, the budget of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has failed to keep pace with medical research inflation, resulting in more than a 20 percent loss in the agency’s purchasing power. To understand the impact of reduced NIH funding, you simply need to ask Dr. Steven Houser, President-Elect of the American Heart Association and the Director of the Cardiovascular Research Center at Temple University. Inside his laboratory, Dr. Houser and his post-doctoral fellows and staff researchers are exploring groundbreaking ways to repair the heart in the aftermath of a heart attack. They are testing three potential therapies, one of which they hope will be the game-changer that could revolutionize the way patients recover from heart attacks.   


Despite his lab’s promising work, NIH was forced to cut Dr. Houser’s grant by 10 percent as a result of sequestration. Sequestration’s cuts have consequences for his own lab, and the labs of his colleagues nationwide. As Dr. Houser explains: 


Almost all laboratories have had to reduce staff due to budget cuts.  Even labs that have been able to keep their funding constant have had to make staff cuts because research costs have risen over the past decade, but NIH support has either been flat or has decreased.


Dr. Houser has been forced to choose between firing staff or scaling back on his research. He is frustrated at how budget politics works in Washington, D.C. – and in particular, sequestration – have stacked the odds against critical research. 


We have the best tools we’ve ever had to make rapid progress towards developing novel therapies. It’s not even close to 30 years ago. I call it the best of times and the worst of times. We have so many wonderful things we can do right now, but we end up in this political climate.


Dr. Houser is also concerned about the long-term effects of this austere funding environment. He worries that the current funding situation will lead to a brain-drain, forcing talented scientists to leave the United States for foreign countries that prioritize biomedical research. 


Trainees are more likely to return to their home country now, with funding at such a low level. This means that we are often training the brightest people from other countries who, in the past, were likely to stay in the U.S. but now will perform their research elsewhere. In my view this could have a negative impact on the ability of the U.S to maintain its leadership role in biomedical science.


OPTIMISM REMAINS


Despite all of the uncertainty around NIH funding, Dr. Houser remains optimistic about the future. 


I am hopeful that we are seeing a light at the end of this funding shortfall and that there will be an increase in the NIH budget this year.  If we see a real increase in the NIH budget and an elimination of the sequester cuts then we can begin the process of rebuilding what has been lost over the past decade and planning for a future with reduced morbidity and mortality from cardiovascular disease and stroke. 

AUTHOR
American Heart Association