Medical Research: The Best Investment We Can Make in Our Future

While the cure for cancer has been elusive, President Obama's National Cancer Moonshot initiative offers renewed hope that we could see breakthroughs in prevention, detection, and treatment for a disease that affects millions of Americans and their families. The cancer moonshot is the latest demonstration that Washington understands the potential for medical research to change lives and improve the health of all Americans. It builds on the bipartisan support we saw last fall when House and Senate negotiators agreed on a $2 billion budget increase for medical research through the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Today, each American pays less than $100 each year to support cutting-edge medical research programs through federal funding for NIH. In my nearly four decades as a physician-scientist, I have seen that investment pay off through major advances in treatments, diagnostic tools, and medical devices. Researchers--many of them at medical schools and teaching hospitals across the nation--have reduced death rates for coronary heart disease and stroke by 70 percent and reduced infant mortality by 40 percent through studies made possible by NIH funding. Today, NIH-funded research is pioneering advances that will help all of us live longer and healthier lives, from new knowledge of the brain and novel treatments for cancer to improvements in our understanding of common illnesses like influenza.

Consider the story of a young girl named Emily. At seven, she had already undergone two rounds of chemotherapy for acute lymphoblastic leukemia. When the cancer returned, Emily and her parents visited the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia Center for Childhood Cancer Research, where she underwent an experimental therapy developed by a team of doctors and scientists to treat pediatric cancers resistant to conventional treatments. Three weeks later, Emily was in remission, and three years later, she remains cancer free.

Decades of federal investment in NIH led to the novel treatment that cured Emily's cancer, along with thousands of other medical advances. But since 2003, federal funding for NIH has been stagnant, and biomedical inflation has eroded its purchasing power. Budget cuts since 2010 have exacerbated the problem. The result is unfunded grants, delayed medical progress, and a generation of young scientists discouraged from pursuing careers in medicine.

Recent momentum, however, has turned in favor of medical research. Congress's budget increase for NIH last fall and the president's recent budget proposal show clear bipartisan support for medical research. This support could not have come at a better time. As a nation, we spend nearly 100 times more on treating diseases than on curing them. If researchers could delay the onset and progression of Alzheimer's disease by five years, we would save $50 billion a year in health costs. By investing in NIH, we will see returns many times over in better health and quality of life across the United States. Medical research also drives innovation, boosts the U.S. economy, and supports U.S. global leadership in science and technology.

With the budget cuts of recent years hopefully behind us, it is critical that the federal government commit to a long-term strategy of sustainable and predictable funding increases for medical research to keep pace with science and provide adequate support for our growing, aging population. We must avoid another boom-and-bust cycle that would depress innovation, delay the discovery of cures and treatments, and discourage brilliant young scientists from pursuing careers in medical research.

Congress and the Obama administration have demonstrated their willingness to increase funding in a way that makes a real difference. They can continue the current momentum by providing relief from sequestration and increasing the spending caps so that Congress can allot more funding to NIH. Let us make these increases sustainable and predictable, so that support for medical research keeps pace with inflation, ensures progress, brings hope to millions today, and creates a healthier future for generations to come.