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Sequestration Stupidity Is Genetic, Hitting Front-Line Medical Research

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St. Louis, a center for cutting-edge medical research, will be hit hard by sequestration cuts.
St. Louis, a center for cutting-edge medical research, will be hit hard by sequestration cuts.

ST. LOUIS -- Of all the blinkered buzz-saw cuts in this year’s $85 billion spending sequestration, perhaps none is as counterproductive -- or as flat-out boneheaded -- as the one now hitting medical research under way in a refurbished industrial expanse of central St. Louis.

Sequester cuts to the rapidly developing process of turning genetic research into a major 21st-century industry -- and saving lives and health care costs -- are the equivalent of trying to build the Interstate Highway System with no ramps or the transcontinental railroad without the final miles in the middle.

In one of the most farsighted and successful government projects ever, Congress in 1990 authorized a 15-year, American-led effort to map the human genome and to make the results available, under careful conditions to protect pure science and personal privacy, to the world. Completed in 2003 at a cost of $3 billion, the Human Genome Project has now spawned a range of technologies -- from tailored drug therapies for cancer to preventative testing to the new big-data discipline of bioinformatics -- which not only are generating jobs, but which hold the promise of dramatically reducing health care costs.

All of that -- not to mention the lives of patients who desperately need advances in care -- is being jeopardized by sequester cuts to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other research agencies.

For a proud but beleaguered city pinning its hopes on health care and medical research, the cuts will be devastating, said Dr. Larry J. Shapiro, dean of the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

The school is a leader in the fertile new field of quickly translating genetic information into real-time patient treatments, especially drug therapies for cancer. The cost of diagnostic sequencing is dropping fast, making it possible to more precisely tailor medical treatments to individual patients. The school has designed its own cutting-edge informatics software, which has the potential to set an industry standard. A pioneer in patient care, it is studying the best ways to give doctors and patients the data they need.

But out of a $400 million budget, Washington University stands to lose about $40 million in funding over an eight-month period.

"Our genomics progress will be substantially slowed," Shapiro told The Huffington Post.

Aside from delaying the delivery of potential cures, the cutbacks and uncertainty in funding will slow St. Louis' efforts to build a new industrial core. Shapiro and others worry about any pause in their drive to attract top scientists, researchers and entrepreneurs to one of the most advanced programs of its kind in the world.

Simply put, St. Louis can’t afford the setback.

Other key academic centers that receive significant NIH funding in genomics and now stand to lose a big chunk of it include Harvard, Johns Hopkins and the University of Pennsylvania. While the institutions are elite, the potential benefits of their work could not be more Main Street.

The cuts are especially ironic because it was the federal government that made this new industry possible. And it is not yet commercially viable enough for the private sector to fully take it over. Nor should the private sector ever have all of the power and knowledge in an industry fraught with regulatory concerns.

Begun under the first Bush administration and amplified by President Bill Clinton, the Human Genome Project was a model of economic development and federal foresight that even Jeffersonian founders would admire. Clinton routinely mentions the project as he argues for new pro-business roles for government. President Barack Obama is following suit, proposing a new $100 million mapping effort, this one of the human brain.

Missouri's Sen. Roy Blunt warned that the sequester was a blunt instrument, so to speak, but joined his fellow Senate Republicans in voting for it. He has since tried to repair some of the damage by forging a deal to keep federal meat inspectors on the job, and he is working on an effort to keep small-airport control towers open.

His spokesperson didn’t respond to questions about the nascent genomics industry at risk in St. Louis. But it doesn’t take a brain surgeon to know what the answer should be.

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