Medicine for an ailing economy

The federal stimulus package makes investing in medical research a cornerstone of the government's effort to revitalize the nation's economy.

Under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the Congress provided $8.2 billion to the National Institutes of Health—the federal agency that funds much of the nation's medical research—for grants to scientists at Stanford University School of Medicine and its peer institutions across the country. The NIH projects that the stimulus money will create and save some 50,000 jobs, nationwide, including some 5,000 for summer jobs for high school and college students and educators. The funding ensures that senior researchers can continue their work, and also prevents young scientists, whom we are counting on to advance medicine in the next generation, from abandoning their labs to find other types of work. The continued employment of these researchers may lead to new treatments for cancer, heart disease, kidney failure, bone defects and many other ailments, saving lives, reducing suffering and ultimately lowering the costs of health care.

The NIH has consistently been one of the largest sources of federal research money for Stanford University. Increases in the agency's funding from the 1970s through the 1990s enabled Stanford scientists to pave the way for such breakthroughs as the anti-cancer therapy Rituxan; the pulse oximeter, which allows surgeons to monitor patients' blood oxygen levels; the phased-array ultrasound, which enables doctors to observe not just the outlines but also the functioning organs of even a very young fetus; and the microarray, which allows physicians and scientists to screen the activity of tens of thousands of genes at once. Between 2003 and the start of 2009, however, the NIH's research spending, when adjusted for inflation, had declined by 13 percent, and in 2006, its budget was actually reduced for the first time in three decades, The shrinking NIH budget forced many of the nation's top scientists to put grant-worthy research projects on hold. The stimulus grants have enabled the NIH to get scores of investigations back on track, while also launching hundreds of new ones that hold the promise of producing direct clinical benefits. The agency estimates that about 60 percent of the money is being used for "new science" and about 40 percent to accelerate existing projects.

As of August 17, the School of Medicine had been awarded about $113 million in grants because of the stimulus package. The money was contributing to the paychecks of hundreds of medical school employees, creating new research jobs as well as making possible increased hours of work for senior scientists and administrative and technical staff, whose workload had been reduced because of previous cutbacks at the NIH. By helping to provide for the livelihood of these employees, the stimulus funds are, in turn, injecting money into the local economy for housing, food, clothing and other staples as well as discretionary spending and tax revenue. A recent study estimates that every dollar spent at an academic medical center leads to an additional $1.30 in spending.

But the stimulus spending at the School of Medicine does more than provide a shot in the arm to the local economy. It is an investment that will help our nation remain the world leader in medical research. From the current 190-plus stimulus-backed projects at the medical school could arise major life-changing innovations in health care, including the possibility of a new treatment for premature infants with chronic breathing difficulties, a technique to use stem cells to heal skeletal defects and a simple test to determine earlier when a transplant recipient is beginning to reject a donated kidney, lung, liver or heart.

These are but a few of the potential benefits that could result from the stimulus grants to the medical school. This Web portal offers the opportunity to learn more about how these dollars are being put to use to benefit the public: It shows how the funding is stimulating today's economic recovery, while moving forward scientific research that could dramatically reduce health-care costs in the future and save lives in the years to come.

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