President Donald Trump released his blueprint for the 2018 federal budget on Thursday. It included deep cuts to a number of science-based departments and organizations, including a 20-percent cut to the budget of the National Institutes of Health.
Leaders from across Seattle’s life sciences and medical communities warned that those cuts would be devastating, and could cost the lives of patients who benefit from NIH-funded research.
“These proposed cuts are indefensible. Patient lives are at stake,” Dr. Gary Gilliland, president and director of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, said at a news conference. He said Fred Hutch would work with partners in Washington state and Washington, D.C., to fight the proposed cuts.
“We cannot slow our urgent quest to find cures,” he said.
About 85 percent of Fred Hutch’s sponsored funding comes from NIH grants, and it receives more NIH grants than any other cancer research center in the country.
While it’s hard to predict exactly what effect the NIH cuts would have, they would doubtlessly stall or set back a huge amount of research at Fred Hutch and organizations like it, including the University of Washington and Seattle Children’s Research Institute.
In a statement emailed to GeekWire, a spokesperson from the UW said cuts to NIH funding “would have devastating impact to critical research across all agencies and institutes and hinder life-saving research in cancer, Alzheimer disease, opioid abuse, heart disease, precision medicine and more.”
That would have a ripple effect on Seattle’s biotechnology industry, which often licenses medical concepts from research institutes in order to bring them to market.
“I think we need to understand that we are in a time in scientific research right now where we have enormous opportunities to benefit patients,” said Dr. Stan Riddell, a Fred Hutch researcher and the director of its immunotherapy department.
“What’s happening in immunotherapy is one example of that: we have malignancies like melanoma and lung cancer that were previously incurable that are now responding to innovative immunotherapies that have actually come from NIH research.”
He also pointed out that the U.S. has led the world in biomedical research for years, precisely because of its investment in training scientists and fueling fundamental research. The implication was that these programs would be a step back.
Beth Caldwell, a 40-year-old mother of two, was also at the Fred Hutch news conference. She has been fighting a “currently incurable” form of breast cancer for the past three years.
“I like to add that ‘currently’ because the more research we do, the more likely it is that I will live to see my children into adulthood,” Caldwell said. “My children are five and nine.”
Caldwell delivered an impassioned defense of patients who would be harmed by a reduction in medical research, almost unavoidable with cuts of this level.
“It’s just not acceptable that people will die because of these cuts. And I’m going to say that again: people like me will die because of these cuts,” she said. “I feel like the government will have blood on its hands if we allow these cuts to go through.”
Life Science Washington, the state’s life science industry group, also denounced the proposed cuts in a statement emailed to GeekWire:
“Washington state is consistently one of the largest recipients of NIH funding in the country, and these funds have fueled the growth of our region’s life science industry. A 20% cut in the NIH budget would be a devastating blow not only to our region’s life science sector, but far more importantly, to patients who are waiting for treatments based on this research. Life Science Washington strongly opposes these draconian and senseless cuts that would essentially shut off the faucet to the discoveries that fuel the innovations on which our industry is based.”
In addition to medical breakthroughs, NIH funding supports job creation and industry growth across the country, and Seattle is no different. Almost every biotechnology and pharmaceutical company in the U.S. can trace its roots to NIH-funded research, from biotech giants like Juno Therapeutics and Seattle Genetics to startups like Nohla Therapeutics.
Outside of Thursday’s proposed cuts, the anti-science tone coming from the Trump administration and much of D.C. has hung like an omen over much of the healthcare complex. Caldwell said it has hit her particularly hard.
“I would not be alive today if it weren’t for the science that happens here at the Hutch, or the science my oncologist uses to keep me alive,” she said. “It makes me really angry when somebody criticizes the work that the scientific community is doing because I see the people who are helped by it, the people whose lives are saved by the research that happens in a building like this.
“We deserve to have our government do what’s best for people, not what’s best for industry, not what’s best for the rich people who have more influence than we do,” Caldwell said. “We deserve to have our government do what it can to save American lives, and I’m one of the American lives that will be lost when these cuts come to fruition.”
Update, 6 p.m.: the Seattle-based Center for Infectious Disease Research issued the following statement Thursday denouncing the proposed NIH cuts:
“The recent proposed budget cut of nearly 20% to the National Institutes for Health (NIH) is deeply concerning. Decades of research from the NIH have led to some of the most remarkable advances humanity has ever seen. The lives of millions of Americans and people around the globe have been saved because of scientific research enabled by the NIH. And today, we stand on the verge of breakthroughs to treat devastating diseases such as Alzheimer’s, cancers, and infectious diseases that threaten to impact each of our lives. These breakthroughs depend critically on the NIH. The diseases researched by the NIH know no political boundaries, no class distinctions, and no racial or religious affiliations. Medical advances funded by the NIH have provided the springboard for the formation of a steady stream of organizations that save lives and boost economies. It is for these reasons that the NIH has, and should continue to receive, bipartisan support.”