Southern California scientists fear the effect of sequestration cuts on medical research

A student works in the stem cell research lab of USC's Keck School of Medicine.
A student works in the stem cell research lab of USC's Keck School of Medicine.
Patrick Lee/KPCC

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With the swing of the federal budget sequester ax just hours away, some scientists in California are concerned for the future of their federally-funded medical research projects.  

The National Institutes of Health (NIH), the nation’s leading medical grant agency, is facing a $1.6 billion cut to its budget that funds research into everything from biomed innovations and discoveries to cures for various diseases.

Among those in California’s booming biomed research industry who are concerned for the future of their projects is Tom Otis, professor and vice-chairman of the Department of Neurobiology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA .

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His pending NIH grant application focuses on brain research into the cerebellum and how its circuits allow a person to gain and maintain coordination. 

Otis says until a few weeks ago, his five-year, $2 million research project appeared on track for full NIH funding.

But that changed when the automatic across-the-board federal spending cuts, known as sequestration, began grabbing headlines. A recent call he made to the NIH gave him little hope that his funding would survive should the cuts actually happen. 

"The staff said that if the sequester went forward, the project wouldn’t be funded," Otis said. "But if the sequester was somehow avoided, then the project would quite likely be funded."

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The full effect of cuts on medical research jobs is uncertain. Some estimates put thousands at risk of losing their jobs. In addition, the cuts could stall important biomedical breakthroughs.

Otis predicts his research project would likely advance neuro-prosthetics, the field of biomedical technology that engages the human nervous system to control prosthetic limbs for amputees.

"If we can understand how the circuitry works, we can design better prosthetics," says Otis.

Across town at USC, the looming spending cuts are generating similar concerns.

"Cancer rates are declining and at this point and time we can’t afford to diminish our investment," says Dr. Stephen B. Gruber, director of the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center . "It’s just paying too many dividends to patients and to the public’s health to cut that funding."

Gruber says the potential 5.1 perc http :// ent automatic federal budget cuts would translate to a $240 million loss to the budgets of the National Cancer Institute.

"With more than 1.6 million Americans who are going to be diagnosed with cancer in 2013, it’s incredibly important that we communicate how important cancer research and bio med science is as a national priority," he says.