President Donald Trump’s 2018 budget proposal calls for drastic funding cuts to scientific research and a major reorganization of the National Institutes of Health, our government’s largest source of medical research funding. While we need scientific research to continue to improve public health and well-being, it is time to better prioritize our research spending to focus on humans instead of animals.
The administration has called for the Department of Health and Human Services’ budget, which includes the Food and Drug Administration and NIH, to be cut by 18 percent. Further, the administration has called for a $1.2 billion cut from NIH — this year — aimed primarily at research grants. While the final budget may not reflect these cuts, it’s clear that the current administration wishes to cut domestic spending, and that for at least the next four years, NIH administrators are going to be making tough choices.
But, to quote FDA commissioner nominee Scott Gottlieb, can we have our cake and eat it too?
NIH funds billions of dollars of research each year, much of it using animals. But high-profile failures of promising new drugs must give us pause. Every so often, we see a review of a particular area of scientific research — cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, immunology, diabetes — where fundamental conclusions about how these diseases work or might be treated were completely wrong, because they were based on research in animals: mostly mice, rats, primates and dogs.
At the same time, new insights into human biology and advances in technology are providing exciting new avenues for research on human cells, tissues and patients.
For example, the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, an NIH center that aims to speed promising new cures to patients, is leading efforts to develop tissue chips. These research devices, often named by the types of cells making them up (“heart-on-a-chip” or “lung-on-a-chip”), are miniaturized versions of one or more human organs grown in a laboratory, and allow researchers to conduct research into human disease and potential treatments that could never be accomplished in animals. Just this month, scientists announced the first “female reproductive system on a chip,” a functional model of the organs of the female reproductive system, plus the liver, which will help scientists study the effects of the human reproductive cycle on drug metabolism and toxicity — and vice versa.
This fiscal year, NCATS provided $13.5 million to university researchers as part of its Tissue Chips for Disease Modeling project. We must continue to support this groundbreaking work.
Funding animal research is too often a dead end. In 2016 and early 2017, we saw the end of three clinical trials for Alzheimer’s disease treatments because the drugs weren’t working. The science behind these drugs is based in animal “models” of Alzheimer’s disease that may show some of the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, but simply aren’t an adequate model of human patients. In fact, 95 percent of new medicines fail in humans after being developed and tested in animals.
Currently, the NIH Office of Nutrition Research is conducting a 10-year strategic planning process, and gathering input on what kinds of nutrition research NIH should support. This makes perfect sense, and needs to happen across NIH, for all kinds of research.
If we can prioritize research that is focused on human patients, not animals, we can save lives and improve public health — no matter what President Trump does.
Kristie Sullivan is vice president of research policy for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.
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