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Funding cutoff threatens state's biotech start-ups

Palm Beach Post - 3/20/2007 12:00:00 AM
by Stacey Singer


Four years of frozen spending at the National Institutes of Health threatens to drive young scientists out of research, nine major universities warned a U.S. Senate appropriations committee in Washington on Monday.

The situation has constrained the launch of Scripps Florida and the state's other biotechnology start-ups, which must grapple with a widening field of competitors for a shrinking pool of research money.

The NIH research budget has been stunted since 2003 — the year The Scripps Research Institute agreed to expand to Florida. The White House is proposing a similarly austere budget in 2008, warned the consortium of nine institutions, which included the University of California, Harvard and Yale universities.

"Anyone who runs a lab is essentially running a small business," said Mathew Pletcher, a 33-year-old assistant biochemistry professor at Scripps Florida. "If grants are drying up, you've got to fire your employees. So you worry."

"I know lots of talented young scientists who have said, 'I've given it my best shot, but I'm going off to do something different now,' " said Layton Smith, a 33-year-old pharmacology professor at Scripps.

When they were hired, Scripps' scientists were told their state support would last for as little as three years, and then they would be expected to win outside support. That's proved difficult.

Smith has won a Florida biomedical research grant of $125,000. But he narrowly missed winning an NIH grant to expand his study of a substance called apelin. It appears to act as an intermediary between fat cells and blood vessels, and Smith hopes it may present a new way to fight diseases associated with obesity.

"Of four of us who got pharmacology PhDs at Vanderbilt in 2001, I'm the only one who is still in science," Smith said.

Scripps Florida launched in temporary quarters in early 2004 and has since grown to more than 200 scientists and staff. At first the institute brought on a young crew. The more established scientists were to come once the permanent labs were finished. But delays ensued as the institute found itself in the middle of a legal tug of war. Scripps' temporary phase has gone from just more than two years to at least five.

Meanwhile, for the young scientists, the clock ticks. Pletcher said he has one more year to find outside research support. He has a stellar résumé and a track record of success, but he's been turned down by the NIH twice for a proposal that he's passionate about: discerning the genetic differences that make psychiatric patients responsive to some antidepressants but not others. He has one more chance to resubmit the proposal.

"This is personalized medicine," Pletcher said. "This has been the goal for a long time."

He's still passionate about the project, but now he's hedging his bets by collaborating with a more established researcher at the University of Florida: Wayne Goodman, who is looking at the issue of suicide in people who take antidepressants.

"When their jobs or their labs or their first positions are on the line, what researchers start to do is focus on research that's most likely to succeed, more conservative, safer research," said neurology Professor Dr. Stephen Stritt-matter of Yale, who was among those testifying before the Senate Appropriations Labor-Health and Human Services Committee on Monday.

"That's exactly the wrong direction," he said. "It's most difficult to launch a new career when budgets are tight, and most of the burden falls on the smallest and newest laboratories."

In some ways, Florida and the NIH are feeling a hangover from a boom time. Between 1998 and 2003, when scientists raced to decipher the human genetic code, the NIH saw its budget double to $27.3 billion.

States and universities across the nation responded by building new lab space and adding science positions at every level, with the expectation that the federal grant money would follow. Florida was no exception, as major lab construction projects launched at the University of Miami and the University of Florida, in addition to the Scripps, Burnham and Torrey Pines institutes.

"The U.S. added more than 15,000 new investigators during and after the doubling," said Dr. Antonio Scarpa, director of the NIH's Center for Scientific Review. "Virtually every medical school I know built new medical research facilities."

Since 2003, however, if inflation is taken into account, the NIH budget has shrunk by 8 percent to 13 percent, depending on calculations, the university consortium said. What has followed is a period of rising competition, frustration, and even desperation, scientists said.

In the 1970s, scientists could expect to win their first major federal grant by age 34. Today, according to the report prepared by the consortium, "Within Our Grasp — Or Slipping Away: Assuring a New Era of Scientific and Medical Progress," the average age for first grant is now nearly 42.

In this climate, only the top 10 percent to 15 percent of all applicants' grants are winning money, depending on their field of study. For new investigators, the statistics are even worse. Only about 5 percent of their proposals are accepted on first submission, NIH Director Dr. Elias Zerhouni told the Senate panel.

In Washington, the plea for more research money is coming at the same time as President Bush's request for another $100 billion to finance the Iraq war, noted U.S. Rep. Tim Mahoney, D-Palm Beach Gardens.

Mahoney said he supports research, but isn't sure where to find the money.

"Frankly I think many people are beginning to become aware how the Iraq war is beginning to impact important programs like the NIH," Mahoney said.

U.S. Rep. Ron Klein, D-Boca Raton, said it's a question of priorities. "I plan to be very outspoken and lead on the issue of funding basic research," Klein said. "If we're trying to cultivate the next generation of scientists we need to incentivize them to stay."

Zerhouni told the Senate committee that Americans spend $44 per year per person on research. In exchange, they've seen their second straight year of declines in cancer deaths, and improvements in heart disease, levels of disability and preventative therapies.

Scarpa said the NIH is trying to help younger scientists by speeding the review of their proposals, so that resubmissions can be made three times a year rather than once a year.

Pletcher said he's convinced his turn will come. His family and his lab employees depend on it. "I have little to no doubt that what we're doing right now is practical, fundable and workable," he said. "I believe in the work we're doing."