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Key blood research at risk from budget cuts

Thursday, March 7, 2013 - 3:00am

At a lab in the University of North Carolina, a drug is being developed that would be "Made in the USA," could cut imports from China, and offer a safer alternative to an existing version.

But Washington politics and the deep budget cuts, also known as the sequester, might be getting in the way.

Lead scientist Jian Liu's funding from the National Institutes of Health ran out Jan. 31. He has some money left over from last year. And if he doesn't get funding by July, at least one postdoctoral graduate student and a technician will have to be let go.

Liu is working on producing a synthetic version of the blood-thinner heparin that aims to prevent the kind of disaster that occurred in 2008, when tainted heparin imported from China killed 94 and sickened hundreds across dozens of American hospitals.

Demand for the drug has always been high. Heparin is commonly used in surgeries, kidney dialysis, blood donations and many cancer treatments. Derived from pig intestines, the U.S. hasn't been able to produce enough to meet the demand of 300,000 doses a day. Drug companies import the drug from China.

"We're very close to a breakthrough on heparin," Liu said. He believes his version could be produced here and even stop imports from China.

Liu's research scored in the top 7th percentile in peer reviews of NIH projects. It's a high score -- any other year in the past decade that score would have easily led to funding. This year, it might be different.

Problem is, the NIH is losing $1.6 billion from its $31 billion budget in its fiscal year that ends September. It will lead to fewer projects being funded in 2013.

The NIH is the largest supporter of biomedical research in the United States, and this means hundreds of research projects won't be funded, said Francis S. Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health. Some 20,000 researchers and technicians would lose jobs, he said.

The National Science Foundation also said last week that 1,000 fewer grants will be awarded this year, compared to last year. NSF funds research and education in non-medical science and engineering.

Scientists and lobbying groups say the funding climate endangers a generation of future scientists and breakthroughs.

"A few years from now, we're going to wonder why we aren't closer to where we need to be on a cure for cancer or developing a better flu vaccine," said Benjamin Corb, spokesman for the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

The 2008 heparin scare helped Liu win funding for his work. But now, Liu worries whether the federal budget cuts may come in the way of an "advanced heparin." 

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