PORTLAND, Ore. -- Doctors and researchers at Oregon Health and Science University are worried about the future of research across the country and at OHSU.
Their concern comes after the White House released its proposed budget. It slashes funding for a number of federal agencies. One of them is the National Institutes of Health. Researchers at OHSU said right now there's research underway that could save lives. But if funding at the federal level is cut, funding to find cures for cancer and other diseases in Oregon will be too.
Katie Knudson said she knows full well the importance of medical research.
“When I was 6 years old, I was diagnosed with Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia, CML, cancer of the blood,” she said.
Her type of cancer is rare and is usually found in middle-aged men.
“Which meant treating it was even more challenging,” said Knudson.
Just a month before she was diagnosed, a new drug hit the market. Gleevec was supposed to be used for adults with CML. It was developed and researched at OHSU. It was also funded by a grant from the NIH. Knudson was one of the first kids to experimentally take the drug. She said Gleevec allowed her to be a kid, and not suffer the fallout of chemotherapy or radiation.
“I was in remission within seven months of being diagnosed,” Knudson said.
But doctors at OHSU said they're worried that if proposed federal cuts go through, it could trickle down and slow, even halt, lifesaving research.
“There are people who are alive today who would not be so, if it were not for that,” said Dr. Daniel Dorsa, the senior vice president for research at OHSU.
The NIH is looking at a roughly $6 billion cut under the Trump Administration's proposed budget.
The NIH is not alone. A number of federal agencies are facing proposed cuts, including the U.S. State Department and Environmental Protection Agency. The budget director said the cuts are about trimming fat. The proposed budget would increase military and security spending.
“This would be a devastating decrease in funding,” said Dorsa.
If the cuts go through, he said it could possibly set research back years.
“What they will have to do is basically not fund any new grants, any new ideas, any of the new innovations that scientists are coming up with, I would say for at least the next three to six years,” Dorsa said.
He said current projects would also potentially see cuts. At OHSU, he said, there are new cancer drugs that are being tested in humans right now.
Dorsa said OHSU receives about $260 million in federal money from the NIH. According to a release, in 2016 researchers there received about $234 million. The NIH is by far the largest source of funding for research at OHSU.
Knudson, who is now a pediatric nurse, said research ultimately gives families another shot.
“It's not just impacting scientists in a lab. It's impacting real people,” she said.
Knudson said a number of the kids she takes care of are undergoing experimental research. It’s their last shot at survival.
“You provide hope when you provide research,” said Knudson.
She said it's that type of research that saved her life.
“I got to be a child the whole time because of this incredible drug,” Knudson said. “If I hadn't had it, I may not be here today."
In addition to slowing progress in researching cures, Dorsa said the impact would trickle down to the rest of the economy. OHSU buys equipment. It gets shipped, and the machines need to be brought up to OHSU. People are paid to do all that.
Part of the concern from people who support slashing federal dollars, has to do with indirect costs associated with research. Some take issue over how much money doesn't get spent on actual research. Dorsa said about 54 percent of the grant money they get, goes toward facility and administrative costs. Still, that money doesn’t cover all the indirect costs; donations cover the rest. He said indirect costs are associated with research, and a research project outside of a university setting would most likely eat up more money.
While philanthropic donations also fund research, Dorsa said they’re not enough.
“[Research] is still dependent on continued funding from the NIH, and the next generation of Gleevecs and understanding of new and better drugs, new and better ways to treat cancer, will be dramatically impacted,” he said.
But Dorsa said he’s remaining hopeful that funding won’t be cut. He said in the past, there’s been bipartisan support in Congress for the NIH and biomedical research in general.
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