WASHINGTON _ Top National Institutes of Health (NIH) officialslobbied for President Clinton's proposed fiscal 1996 budget duringHouse Appropriations Committee hearings last week.

The President has proposed a $467 million increase in NIH's budgetfor 1996, 4.1 percent more than the 1995 appropriation of $11.3billion. At a March 14 Labor, Health and Human Services andRelated Agencies Subcommittee hearing, NIH Director HaroldVarmus conceded that the nation's budget crunch demands thatagencies justify their budgetary requests "in especially forceful ways.

"Our agency has pursued its goals with remarkable success for over50 years," said Varmus. "This success can be measured in severalways: by America's unequivocal world dominance in biomedicalscience; by the unremitting stream of exciting scientific discoveriessupported by the NIH; by many improvements in health through theprevention and treatment of disease; by the strength of our research-intensiveuniversities, which are the envy of the world; and by direct andindirect economic benefits of NIH-sponsored research."

Varmus argued that knowledge generated by NIH-supported research provides essential fuel to drive the pharmaceuticaland biotechnology industries. He highlighted scientific achievementsin 1994, including the discovery of the long-sought gene, BRCA1,which is responsible for some hereditary breast cancers.

The BRCA1 gene generated some controversy last year when tinyMyriad Genetics Inc., of Salt Lake City, filed a patent applicationthat did not name NIH scientists who collaborated on the project. Asa result, the NIH filed its own patent. The dispute was resolved inmid-February when Myriad agreed to include NIH scientists on itspatent while retaining worldwide rights to the discovery. (SeeBioWorld Today, Feb. 16, 1995, p. 1.)

Subcommittee chairman Rep. John Porter (R-Ill.) questioned Varmusabout the incident last week, asking whether or not similar conflictsare likely to arise in future NIH/private sector collaborations. "It'sdifficult to understand why NIH scientists were excluded from theoriginal patent application," answered Varmus.

"It's possible that one of the reasons was some reluctance to haveNIH involved in the licensing and commercialization of the productbecause of anxiety about the role of NIH control of pricing of theproduct."

Varmus also noted the isolation of thrombopoietin (TPO), a factorthat stimulates the production of human blood platelets, as a majorscientific advance in 1994. He said the work, carried out by scientistsat three different biotechnology companies, benefited from "manyyears of NIH-supported research experience with other factors."

Another biomedical research coup in 1994, according to Varmus,was the emergence of a new class of AIDS drugs, called proteaseinhibitors. He added that basic research, largely supported by theNIH, laid the groundwork for the half dozen pharmaceutical andbiotechnology companies now engaged in developing proteaseinhibitors.

National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID)director Anthony Fauci echoed many of Varmus' arguments beforesubcommittee members. He hailed NIH-sponsored studies thatshowed the AIDS drug AZT can reduce by two-thirds the rate of HIVtransmission from mother to infant as a major contribution in 1994."The annual savings to the U.S. health care system could be as muchas $170 million in direct medical care costs," he claimed.

The fate of NIH funding in the Republican-led Congress is unclear,despite the fact that party leaders and key committee chairs haveexpressed unequivocal support for science spending. The President'sbudget holds funding relatively stable, to slightly above the currentrate of inflation. But expensive middle-class tax cuts and deficitreduction plans, if enacted, will probably impact agencies andprograms across the board. n

-- Lisa Piercey Washington Editor

(c) 1997 American Health Consultants. All rights reserved.