In the past 40 years, the U.S. has been the world leader in converting fundamental scientific discoveries into innovative new treatments for life-threatening disease. New drugs, vaccines, and medical devices have improved human health and increased our lifespan.
In this time, the treatment of cardiovascular disease has been transformed, HIV medications have been developed that mean AIDS is no longer a death sentence, and within the last five years, revolutionary new drugs that work through the activation of the immune system are now successfully treating some forms of cancer.
What is the winning formula that led to this record of achievement?
Funding from agencies like the National Institute of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) has gone to universities and other research laboratories whose scientists have discovered the basic causes of disease and identified molecular targets that could be addressed by the biopharmaceutical industry.
That three-way partnership not only generated new treatments for disease, but created a vibrant new sector of our economy — the biotech industry.
Yet, despite decades of bipartisan support for science as an engine for economic growth, the White House has released a budget proposal for 2018 that seeks to walk away from this investment, drastically reducing federal funding for science and threatening our ability to continue making Americans healthier and more prosperous.
This is the metaphorical equivalent of eating our seed corn. And the timing for such a withdrawal could not be worse, as the rest of the world is accelerating the pace of its investments in science and engineering.
Imagine if, in 1981, we were not investing in basic and applied research. At that time, AIDS was a new and frightening epidemic. The cause was unknown but all affected patients were dying. Thanks to scientific research, it was discovered that the disease was caused by the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV).
Researchers were able to identify molecular targets that were points of vulnerability in the virus. Ultimately, combining three drugs that attacked three different molecular targets transformed the epidemic from a lethal to a chronic disease.
We are able to test for HIV, and those who are HIV-positive no longer face a death sentence, but rather are able to live relatively normal and productive lives, including returning to work.
The treatment of cardiovascular disease has also been transformed, although it still unfortunately claims the lives of over 600,000 people in the United States each year. Today, it is well-known that statins, the cholesterol-lowering medications, are critical to managing cardiovascular disease.
However, these drugs were only developed because scientists — with funding from federal agencies — were able to discover how the body makes cholesterol, and identify a molecular target that could be hit with pharmaceuticals.
These advancements have changed public health for the better, and with an aging U.S. population, the next generation biopharmaceutical breakthroughs will hopefully come from the neurosciences, where scientists are searching for the target molecules that can be modified by drugs to address neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson's, ALS, and Alzheimer's.
For those who are over 80 years old, the risk for Alzheimer's disease is 40 percent. At 90 years old, the risk increases to 50 percent.
We cannot afford to stall scientific discovery. We cannot afford to reduce funding for agencies like NIH and NSF and expect that we will continue to remain on the forefront of biopharmaceutical innovation.
The country has no Plan B for producing the fundamental discovery needed to improve human health.
With the right federal funding and support, we are fully confident that universities will continue to discover key molecular targets and the biopharmaceutical industry will turn them into treatment and cures for disease.
We applaud the members of Congress who provided robust funding for R&D in the recently passed 2017 appropriations, and urge them to further strengthen our national commitment to investing in scientific research as they negotiate the 2018 budget.
Our health and well-being depend on it.