By Lisa Seachrist

Washington Editor

WASHINGTON — A coalition comprised of patient and research organizations kicked off an effort to convince Congress to double the budget for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in five years.

Actors Christopher Reeve, who was paralyzed in a riding accident, and Mary Tyler Moore, who is diabetic, joined several members of Congress to voice their commitment to working for a 15 percent increase in federal funding for the NIH every year for the next five years.

"I am here today to call on the federal government to assure the American public that medical research funding is one of its highest priorities," said Reeve, who is chairman of the board for the American Paralysis Association. "This is a moral imperative that should transcend the lines of politics."

The movement is already gaining bipartisan strength. Congressional representatives from such varied political postures as Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Sen. Connie Mack (R-Fla.) are stepping up to support the proposal.

"People in the disease community have repeatedly heard that cures are on the horizon," said Morton Kondracke, convener of NIHx2, the organization sponsoring the event, and the executive editor of Roll Call.

"The problem is having the money to follow through. All of the groups need to target Congress and convince them that this is a must do."

In a budget neutral environment, where every increase in spending must be balanced with new revenue or reductions in another program, the coalition has its work cut out for it. But coalition members noted advances in medical research to prevent, cure or minimize the impact of disease have the potential to drastically impact the economy. They estimate the economic burden of disease in the U.S. at $1 trillion annually.

Budget Hike May Benefit Low Priority Diseases

The coalition pointed out that advances in treating diabetic retinopathy have prevented blindness and produced annual societal savings of between $1.2 billion and $1.6 billion.

"[Funding medical research] has worked in the past," Kondracke said. "We got results in cancer, we got results with the Salk vaccine. If only 22 percent of accepted, peer-reviewed grants are funded [now], we could fund 40 percent [with the proposed increase]. On that basis alone, this is worthwhile."

The 1998 NIH budget totals $13.6 billion. (See BioWorld Today, February 4, 1998.)

Kondracke also said the increase in funding would allow more research into lower priority diseases like diabetes and Parkinson's disease.

"Once a disease becomes a priority, it tends to remain a priority," Kondracke said. "Congress has been reasonably generous in allocating funds to NIH, but it is not double. Doubling the funds will allow the priority disease to continue to be funded while creating parity for the less well-funded diseases."

Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) President Carl Feldbaum released a statement supporting the coalition's effort to double NIH funding in five years noting that NIH research provides a critical foundation for the research into new therapies pursued by the biotechnology industry.

"Our industry wants to continue to secure licenses to NIH-funded basic research to develop new therapies and cures," Feldbaum said. "The biotechnology industry is more than willing to pay royalties on any sales of products which result from research. This partnership is a fundamental reason why the U.S. leads the world in biomedical research and development." *

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