Office Of Public Affairs

From the Lab to the Bedside: Why Funding for Basic Science Research Matters

Aug 26, 2007 6:00 PM

Editorial by Dana Carroll, Ph.D., professor and chair, Department of Biochemistry

These are hard times for biomedical researchers. Our research tools are powerful, our knowledge base is deep; but our ability to progress is limited by tightly constrained funding.

Like other research-intensive institutions, the University of Utah receives most of its research funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). In the latest fiscal year, NIH grants and contracts to School of Medicine scientists totaled nearly $80 million. That's a lot of money, but it masks the fact that only 10 percent to 15 percent of new and renewal applications are being funded, compared to 25 percent to 30 percent just a few years ago. Particularly hard hit are very basic research studies into fundamental biological mechanisms.

The value of basic discovery research is frequently underappreciated. The fact is, however, it is impossible to predict where important new insights will come from. It is essential, therefore, to keep probing how the world works.

One example of unanticipated rewards of basic research is the ubiquitous technique of DNA testing. This forensic tool was made possible by two advances: the development of the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and the analysis of sequences in the human genome. PCR emerged from basic DNA biochemistry and originated as a general tool for DNA analysis. Interest in human DNA sequences is long-standing, but detailed investigation required the advent of high-throughput DNA sequencing, DNA cloning, and other techniques. It would have been impossible to produce a reliable DNA test without these fundamental advances.

Another example is found in the production of the new HPV vaccine, which has been shown to be very effective against cervical cancer. Unlike previous vaccines, which were based on killed or attenuated disease agents, this vaccine is totally synthetic. It consists of a single protein normally made by the virus that has been produced in the bacteria and assembled into empty viruslike particles. Because it contains no viral genes, this vaccine cannot cause an infection, yet it induces effective immunity against the virus. The methods used to make this vaccine are again derived from basic techniques in DNA and protein biochemistry.

The current constraints on funding of basic research threaten future advances like these, both by slowing the rate of discovery and by discouraging current and future scientists from choosing careers in research. Only a restoration of NIH funding will prevent the United States from losing its position at the forefront of biomedical advances.

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