Globe op/ed : Is university research into potential new drugs unreliable? Are we wasting NIH $$$?

images nihLocal science writer Sylvia Pagán Westphal penned a Globe column earlier this week that deserves some attention. She argues that the federal government is investing billions of dollars into flawed university research. Her piece comes as a time when NIH grantees are railing against a spending slowdown.  Earlier this week, NIH chief Francis Collins appeared at the  John’s Hopkins pediatric hospital  — with a stroke patient and a senator — arguing that  the cuts put ” entire generation of U.S. scientists at risk and our nation at risk as well.” 

Westphal takes a different perspective, noting that NIH spends $31 billion a on research that is  “supposed to be the cornerstone of drug discovery.” 

But a lot of what is published by academia is not reliable. Several investigations over the last few years have found that an unacceptably large percentage of preclinical studies, many of which are published in very prestigious journals, can’t be replicated.

 Researchers from Bayer Healthcare and Amgen have recently reported on this issue. At Amgen,    scientists were able to confirm only 11 percent of results from seminal papers in hematology and oncology that the company had deemed promising, a result the authors of the report described as “shocking.” At Bayer, almost two-thirds of early-stage projects surveyed were delayed or eventually terminated because published results could not be repeated. The authors of the Amgen piece expressed concern that some of that research had led to unnecessary clinical studies, “suggesting that many patients had subjected themselves to a trial of a regimen or agent that probably wouldn’t work.”

It is rare to find someone who asks – is NIH money well spent? Are we promising newly trained scientists labs we can or shouldn’t fund?  Instead, the common refrain is — less money for NIH means a slowdown in scientific progress which means a slowdown in the effort to cure disease. Should we be pursuing solutions that no one can afford? That might have long term side effects that only show up when the patent expires?

This is science, so it would be nice if someone could quantify the impact of cuts rather than relying on anecdotes about the impact on individual lab or scientists.

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