U.S. Nobel laureates worry about future of basic science

Reuters

By Julie Steenhuysen

CHICAGO, Oct 7 (Reuters) - The kind of basic science thathelped Randy Schekman win the coveted Nobel medicine prize mightnever have been funded if he had applied today.

Schekman, along with two other U.S.-based winners of the 2013medicine prize, Thomas Suedhof and James Rothman, slammed recentspending cuts at the National Institutes of Health, the biggestfunder of scientific research in the world. The budget curbswere undermining the chances of breakthroughs and the nextgeneration of basic research, they said.

The three scientists, who won the Nobel for research on howcells swap proteins, have all received NIH funding at some timeduring their careers.

Across-the-board federal budget cuts, known assequestration, which started in March, required the NIH to cut 5percent or $1.55 billion of its 2013 budget. The cuts come ontop of years of reductions in federal spending on research atthe NIH.

The cuts automatically went into effect after the WhiteHouse and Republican-controlled House of Representatives failedto agree to a deficit reduction blueprint.

The "federal paralysis is frankly imperiling our biomedicalenterprise", said Schekman of the University of California,Berkeley.

More than 80 percent of the NIH's budget goes to more than300,000 research personnel at more than 2,500 universities andresearch institutions throughout the United States, according tothe agency's website.

Schekman's contribution towards the Nobel started with lowlybaker's yeast which he used as a simplified model to pick apartthe basic genes and molecular pathways cells use to shareproteins with other cells.

It is a process that is fundamental not only to yeast butalso the human brain, and it could only have been discoveredthrough basic research, the type that illuminates the basicmechanics of nature and forms the foundation for futurediscoveries.

FROM YEAST, GREAT THINGS

At a press conference in New Haven, Connecticut, Nobelwinner Rothman also criticized NIH spending cuts and said heprobably would not have started his research had NIH funding notbeen available.

He said over the past few years, NIH funding, which "hasmade America the great engine of biomedical discovery" andfueled the U.S. biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries, hadfallen significantly, when accounting for inflation.

University research made possible by federal grants has longbeen a major driver of scientific advancement, spurringinnovations from cancer treatments to the seeds of technologycompanies like Google.

The three scientists also expressed concern at the agency'sfocus on research that can be quickly transferred into medicaldiscoveries rather than "basic science".

In 2011 the NIH set up the National Center for AdvancingTranslational Sciences as a way to speed the translation ofmedical advances into new therapies for patients.

"Many of my colleagues, particularly young colleagues, feelthey have to work on medically relevant things. For example,yeast, which I continue to view as a valuable model organism, isless popular now simply because people feel they can't get NIHfunding to work on yeast," said Schekman.

It was not immediately possible to seek reaction from the NIHto the scientists' comments. It is one of the agencies hard hitby a partial U.S. government shutdown over a budgetdisagreement.

Scarce funds have forced a focus on "translational science"- research that can be quickly "translated" into medicalapplications.

Suedhof said the public in the United States "justifiablyfeels so much money has been spent that it's time to actuallyget something out of it."

But, particularly in brain science, there is still much tolearn as has been the experience of many drug companies thathave attempted to test treatments for diseases such asAlzheimer's.

"In my view, we don't have anything to 'translate' becausewe just don't understand the fundamental diseases of the brain,like schizophrenia, like autism, like Alzheimer's. It's just assimple as that."

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