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AAMC meet highlights need for research funds

Sep. 27, 2012, 9:02 AM

During a meeting in Nashville last week, the director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) called on academic medical centers to make the case for continued, strong federal investment in biomedical research.

“Do not be shy,” Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D., said Sept. 20 during the national research meeting hosted by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). “We are engaged in a noble enterprise … The world needs us.”

Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D., director of the National Institutes of Health, speaks at last week’s national research meeting hosted by the Association of American Medical Colleges. (photo by Bill Snyder)

In an earlier address, AAMC President and CEO Darrell Kirch, M.D., said that academic medical centers must also be the “innovation engine” for changing the nation’s health care system, which is beset by out-of-control costs and less-than-optimal results.

“What we have to do now is more forcefully make the case that we are the solution,” Kirch said during the joint annual meeting of the AAMC Groups on Research Advancement and Development (GRAND) and Graduate Research Education and Training (GREAT).

More than 300 scientists and administrators from medical schools and research programs across the country attended the three-day meeting at the Sheraton Nashville Downtown Hotel.

GRAND helps medical schools and hospitals conduct biomedical research; GREAT promotes quality Ph.D. and postdoctoral biomedical training programs.

Much of the agenda focused on the impact of dwindling support for biomedical research and training.

Basic research conducted by academic medical centers and supported in large part by the NIH has contributed to dramatic reductions in deaths from heart disease, cancer and other diseases in the past 25 years, Collins said.

It also has fueled a powerful economic engine that, when biotech and pharmaceutical companies are included, employs 1 million Americans and generates tens of billions of dollars in wages, goods and services, he said.

On the horizon “is enormous potential for revolutionizing our understanding of the molecular basis of diseases and being able to do something about that,” Collins said.

Vanderbilt’s George Hill, Ph.D., left, talks with Ann Bonham, Ph.D., chief scientific officer of the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), and Philip Alberti, Ph.D., senior director of Health Equity Research and Policy at the AAMC, during a reception at Vanderbilt last week. (photo by Anne Rayner)

Yet “America’s leadership in biomedical research … is eroding … fairly quickly as we fail to keep up with opportunities and other countries (like China) are coming up fast,” he said.

If Congress and President Obama fail to provide an alternative plan to reduce the federal deficit, an across-the-board cut in federal spending called sequestration will take effect on Jan. 2. The NIH could lose 8.2 percent of its $30.7 billion budget.

“This is the moment to reach out” to Congress, Collins repeated. The NIH can do some of that, he said, “but it only really works if this is an effort that stretches across the country, in every state.”

The AAMC meeting included a dinner hosted by Vanderbilt University Medical Center and a presentation on personalized medicine by Dan Roden, M.D.

Roden, the William Stokes Chair in Experimental Therapeutics and assistant vice chancellor for Personalized Medicine, discussed Vanderbilt’s massive DNA databank, BioVU, and PREDICT, a clinical decision support program linked to electronic medical records.

With more than 150,000 unique genetic samples, BioVU is now the world’s largest DNA databank linked to searchable, electronic health information. It is accelerating genetic studies of diseases as diverse as diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease.

Through PREDICT, Vanderbilt patients are screened for genetic variations that affect their responses to commonly prescribed drugs.

The program helps doctors choose drugs that are most likely to work and least likely to cause side effects.

Resources like BioVU and PREDICT “drive discovery,” Roden said. “It only happens because of an institutional culture and an institutional will that say, ‘This is what we’re going to do.’”

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