Minnesota scientists rebel against Trump plan to gut funding for breakthrough cures

In April, scientists emerged from the lab to fight for climate science. On Saturday, they'll return to protest the president's proposal to gut medical research.

In April, scientists emerged from the lab to fight for climate science. On Saturday, they'll return to protest the president's proposal to gut medical research. Lorie Shaull

President Donald Trump's 2018 budget, "A New Foundation for American Greatness," calls for a $6 billion cut to the National Institutes of Health. That's the agency that pays scientists to find cures for humankind's yet incurable diseases, like cancer and AIDS.

Trump's hope to slash NIH's budget by 20 percent is rather unlikely. It's already been roundly mocked by Republicans like Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who called it "one of the more hare-brained recommendations in the budget," and Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, who noted that it would cost America some 90,000 jobs. The House budget seems to completely disregard Trump, offering NIH a $1.1 billion increase.

Still, Minnesota scientists are anxious. With all the chaos in Washington over healthcare, EPA cuts, and White House firings, funding for medical research is uncertain. The House hasn't been able to pass the Health and Human Services bill, which includes NIH funding, and even then it would have to go through the Senate and wind up under the president's pen.

On Saturday, researchers, patients, and their advocates plan to rally at the Capitol, where they will try to conjure up a picture of what a $6 billion cut would look like.

Dan Gilchrist in the University of Minnesota's Office of the VP of Research imagines the U would lose $52 million, roughly 2,000 researchers, and 1,000 post-docs. When the president revealed his budget in May, more than 500 faculty and staff sent cries for help to their representatives in Congress.

"It's hard to know what we would do. It would be a major blow to us."

In the 1980s, it was NIH money that allowed a U researcher to come up with the primary compound in the HIV drug Ziagen. As of 2013, it was keeping 13 million people around the world alive. More recently, another NIH-supported researcher discovered a gene in extinct fish that could one day help human cells recognize cancerous cells.

Almost all major projects at the U are tied to NIH, Gilchrist says. From the folks working on opioid addiction and mental health to U international aid workers treating malaria in developing countries.

These discoveries have trickled down to clients of the Minnesota AIDS Project, another rally sponsor.

Over the years, HIV treatment has gone from a bulky and expensive daily cocktail to one pill that grows smaller and smaller. Soon, patients will only need to have an injection a month. Recently, science has also delivered a daily pill for the HIV-negative, which would make it virtually impossible for them to be infected.

These drugs weren't available 15 years ago, and without NIH funding, wouldn't be available today, says the AIDS Project's Matt Toburen.

"The biggest piece for us is identifying a cure for HIV. There's still no cure, which is something we continue to hope and pray for, and we don't want that work to stop."

This year the Minnesota Brain Injury Alliance, in conjunction with the state legislature, funded seed money for new eye-tracking technology in hopes that researchers would have enough initial data to apply for serious NIH grants.

If that NIH money dried up, there's no telling how supportive the legislature would continue to be, says the Alliance's Sue McGuigan.

"I think they're pretty committed to doing this, but it calls into question how far can we go. Either they would have to make different choices, or we would have to give more money to fewer organizations because we want them to follow through."

And the Minnesota Cancer Alliance fears that emerging questions about the causes of cancer will remain mysteries.

Chair Ken Bence, a Golden Valley firefighter, says that firefighters nationwide worry that NIH cuts would handicap efforts to understand why they suffer higher rates of cancer. The speculation is that the typical house today burns more plastics and chemically altered products, which makes them more carcinogenic than those of decades past. Without academically rigorous research, we may never know.

E-cigarettes are another hot topic in the world of lung cancer prevention. Are they healthier than tobacco, more harmful in different ways? Do they help people quit smoking or create a gateway for kids? There haven't been enough studies to tell.

"We in the U.S. have enjoyed the largest investment in medical research that's been government funded than any other country," Bence says. "It's a concern that the current administration doesn't recognize the benefits of that, that it's another example of where the United States rises above other developed countries, and I and many others would like to see it ranked accordingly."

The Rally for Research will take place at the Capitol on Saturday at 1 pm.