A picture of Senator Richard J. Durbin
Richard D.
Democrat IL

About Sen. Richard
  • Funding for Biomedical Research

    by Senator Richard J. Durbin

    Posted on 2016-01-12

    submit to reddit

    DURBIN. Mr. President, a few months ago my colleague from Missouri, Senator Blunt, took the floor and spoke to two issues we have in common. I will speak to one of them in a moment--the flooding in the Midwest--but I wish to also address another one that he raised.

    Senator Blunt is in an extraordinary position, having been given an opportunity to handle the appropriations bill for the Department of Health and Human Services. Within the Health and Human Services appropriations bill is funding for most of the biomedical research by the Federal Government.

    I have spoken to Senator Blunt over the past year and even before about my strong feelings on this subject. I feel, as most Americans do, that our investment in biomedical research is a wise investment, potentially sparing people from disease and death that could follow an illness but also making an investment in America's innovative economy, creating opportunities for jobs and for expanded research and new products and pharmaceuticals. Senator Blunt took that challenge to heart, and when he was faced with the appropriations bill for this Department, he made a special effort when it came to medical research. I am so happy that he did.

    It was only a few years ago that we had automatic, across-the-board cuts called sequestration. It was devastating. As a net result of that, many of the youngest and most promising researchers gave up on the field because they didn't think there was a commitment from Congress, from the President, and from the government to continue to expand biomedical research. We saw the median age of researchers climbing because younger researchers looked for other jobs. That is a horrible waste of talent and a squandering of an opportunity, I am sure, to find ways to make life more bearable and to cure diseases across America.

    Several years ago, when I visited the NIH, the head of the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Francis Collins, told me that if we could have 5 percent real growth in biomedical research at the NIH for 10 years, he could light up the scoreboard. We were on the cusp of so many discoveries that this was an opportunity, if the investment were made, to really have some medical breakthroughs. I took that to heart and introduced a bill called the American Cures Act, and I am sure Senator Blunt and many of my colleagues are tired of hearing about it. The notion is 10 percent by Congress; 5 percent real growth each year when it comes to the NIH.

    As it turns out, this year we are knocking on the door of doing just that with the investment that was made by the appropriations bill. This investment is almost $42 billion in biomedical research, $32 billion in the National Institutes of Health, a 6.6-percent increase over last year; $7 billion for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a 4.5-percent increase over fiscal year 2015.

    There are two other areas of research opportunities in biomedical research: the Veterans Medical and Prosthetics Research Program and the Department of Defense Health Program. That is an appropriations bill I have something to do with, working with the chairman, Senator Cochran. Both of those programs received a 7-percent increase over the previous fiscal year. These increases at NIH, CDC, Veterans, and Defense are a real turnaround. They bring to an end a decades-long downward trend when it comes to biomedical research.

    Senator Blunt has said--and I have, too--this shouldn't be a one-hit wonder. We have to repeat that this year when it comes to the appropriations for the next fiscal year beginning October 1. We have to make sure we make our promise and keep it when it comes to biomedical research. If we do it, I know this level of funding is going to result in dramatic, positive developments.

    There are so many areas we need help with. I can think of a few that are obvious, including Alzheimer's. An American is diagnosed with Alzheimer's once every 67 seconds. When my staff told me that, I didn't believe it. I said: Go back, recalculate, and tell me the real number. It turns out they were right. Once every 67 seconds, a person is diagnosed with Alzheimer's.

    [[Page S44]] Last year we spent over $200 billion in Medicare and Medicaid for Alzheimer's care. That is just a fraction of the total cost. Think about what individual families spent, what private insurance sources spent, the charitable care that was given to Alzheimer's patients. So when we talk about increasing the NIH budget by $2 billion for 1 year, it is a tiny fraction. It is 1 percent of the amount we are spending on Alzheimer's.

    If we could find a way to detect Alzheimer's earlier, delay its onset, reduce the period of time of suffering, or perhaps even find a cure, God willing, it would have a dramatic, positive impact on so many lives and families and on our bottom-line Federal budget. Take that argument about Alzheimer's and apply it as well to cancer. How many of our families and friends are suffering and fighting cancer right now? My wife and I were struck over the holidays by how many of our close friends are battling cancer at this moment. We know they are looking for hope. They are looking for drugs. They are looking for something that will break through and give them a chance at life. That is why I believe this biomedical research is so critical.

    Let me add one postscript. Stopping with these agencies is not enough. I recently visited the Department of Energy. The new Secretary there, Ernest Moniz, and I were talking about biomedical research. He said that when it comes to the technology for imaging that is making such a difference in the world, it isn't just in biomedicine; it is in engineering and science as well, in the Department of Science, within the Department of Energy. So let's not be shortsighted. Let's have an open mind about innovation and creation.

    Last week I was in Peoria, IL, an area I am proud to represent. I went to visit OSF Hospital there. I went to what is known as the Jump Center. We don't forget that name very easily. What they have done in the Jump Center is they have combined the University of Illinois Medical School and the University of Illinois Engineering Department in a common effort to bring new engineering and new technology to medicine and medical breakthroughs. What they are doing there is amazing--first, training doctors and medical professionals to do their job effectively without mistakes. That, of course, is the ultimate outcome we are looking for. Over their shoulders are engineers and technicians who are looking at these doctors doing their work, finding new applications for computers and engineering technology that can make their work easier and more effective.

    They showed me a model of the human heart. It was a heart of an infant with serious heart problems. This model they gave me was the actual human heart reproduced of an infant who was facing surgery. They took the MRIs and the CAT scans, put them into a 3D copier, and produced this little heart that you could hold in your hand. They were able to give that heart to the surgeon to look at before the surgery, and they opened it so that the surgeon could look inside that heart model--a model which tracked the reality of that infant--and know before the surgery what he would find.

    It meant less time on the heart-lung machine, a more likely positive recovery. It was the use of technology in engineering to move us forward and to give that little baby a fighting chance. So I thank Senator Blunt. I want to especially thank my colleague Senator Patty Murray. She has been a terrific leader in this field, both on the appropriations and authorizing committees, and also Senator Lamar Alexander.

    I think we have all come to conclude that regardless of how much time we have in the Senate, we should leave a mark that makes a difference. When it comes to biomedical research, this year's budget, which Senator Blunt referred to, will make a difference. Now, let's make sure it is not a one-hit wonder. Let's make sure we do it again in next year's budget as well.


  • submit to reddit
  • Register your constituent account to respond

    Constituent Register