Nick Mulcahy

April 08, 2013

Washington, DC — There was no civil disobedience, arrests, or calls to arms, but the Rally for Medical Research here today was not short on passion or poignancy.

The rally, which was billed as an effort "to make funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) a national priority," involved thousands of members of the medical research community along with patients both young and old, as well as advocates and politicians. In effect, the gathering was a protest against the federal cuts as a result of the sequester.

"History has shown that basic research funded by government pays off," Marc Tessier-Lavigne, PhD, president of Rockefeller University in New York City told Medscape Medical News after the rally. He was one of the featured speakers. "We have cut the rate for heart disease in half in the past 40 years. We made HIV/AIDS a disease that is manageable without hospitalization. There are huge human and economic benefits," he said.

"To not make this investment will set us back — it is a false savings," he added.

Kimberly Butler, PhD, a fellow in biomedical sciences at the National Cancer Institute

The rally crowd gathered in front of the Carnegie Library to listen to a litany of speakers who included well-known figures such as actress Maura Tierney, a breast cancer survivor who recently opened a new play on Broadway, and journalist Cokie Roberts, as well as the unheralded such as Gee Gerke, an Alzheimer's disease advocate and caregiver from Gaithersburg, Maryland.

"I think it was a huge success. There was tremendous energy. Most impressively, all of the different disease interest groups came together under one tent, cheering each other on," said Charles Sawyers, MD, PhD, of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and the president-elect of the American Association of Cancer Research. He spoke with Medscape Medical News after the event.

The rally took place across the street from the Washington Convention Center, where the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) 104th Annual Meeting is taking place. The meeting was shut down for an hour and a half to accommodate the rally. The AACR was 1 of 200 organizations that put the rally together; the American Society of Clinical Oncology and the American Society of Hematology both also issued statements supporting the rally.

The next challenge, said Dr. Sawyers, is to get the involved groups to continue to work on the task of getting government funds restored.

Thousands of medical researchers, patients, advocates, and elected officials advocating for improved funding for the NIH attended the rally for medical research

Both Dr. Sawyers and Dr. Tessier-Lavigne said funding for the NIH has been flat for the last 20 years. With inflation, that represents a decline in spending power.

In addition, the NIH budget has been cut by 5% as a result of sequestration, ASCO noted. When accounting for biomedical research inflation, these automatic budget cuts will effectively reduce the NIH budget by 23% ($6 million) since 2003, decreasing spending to below 2011 levels. This will have "a devastating and long-lasting impact on advances in biomedical research and the next generation of investigators," ASCO commented in a statement.

"Our scientists are under enormous stress to get funding. It is discouraging young people from entering science, and that is the worst of all, because if we don't replenish our scientific community with young energy, our community will decline," said Dr. Tessier-Lavigne.

A young scientist at the rally corroborated Dr. Tessier-Lavigne's thoughts. "More and more of my friends are leaning away from careers in research and looking for other, nonresearch ways to use their scientific training," said Kimberly Butler, PhD, a fellow in biomedical sciences at the National Cancer Institute. But Dr. Butler was inspired by the event. "The rally was amazing. The political speeches were uplifting and the patient advocates were moving in their stories and support," she said.

"I think it was really important for the entire medical research community to come together with one voice to urge Congress to take action," Julie Fleshman, president of Pancreatic Cancer Action Network in Los Angeles, California, told Medscape Medical News after the rally.

John Edward Porter, a former Republican congressman from Illinois and chair of Research!America, guessed that the rally crowd was mostly "moderate" in their politics but urged them to become "militantly moderate." Foremost, individuals who want to see medical research need to contact their elected representatives in Congress, he said.

American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) 104th Annual Meeting.


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