Sequestration: 'Wrong cuts at the wrong place at the wrong time'

Sen. Patty Murray visits Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center for roundtable discussion with researchers, advocates and former patients on consequences of the sequester on scientific progress, jobs, human lives
Sen. Patty Murray visits Fred Hutch
Sen. Patty Murray toured a research lab and heard from more than a half-dozen leading scientists from Fred Hutch, Seattle Children's Research Institute, UW Medicine and the Pacific Northwest Diabetes Research Institute during a roundtable discussion that detailed sequestration's impact. Photos by Dean Forbes

When Michael Rubin was diagnosed with leukemia at age 24, his doctors gave him one shot at survival: a bone marrow transplant at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Now, cancer-free for more than two decades, Rubin is living proof that research saves lives.

"If it weren't for federal funding, Fred Hutch never would have pioneered bone marrow transplants and I wouldn't have lived to meet my daughter and watch her grow up," Rubin said.

Rubin has dedicated his career to raising funds for Fred Hutch's research and, on Tuesday, had the opportunity to tell his story to someone with direct power to shape the federal budget: Sen. Patty Murray, chair of the Senate Budget Committee. She visited Fred Hutch to see firsthand how new government spending cuts—called sequestration—may jeopardize the next generation of lifesaving therapies for cancer and other diseases.

Sequester to cost medical research sector $43 million in funding

Because of sequestration, the local medical research sector is going to lose $43 million in funding, Murray said. The National Institutes of Health, which provides roughly 64 percent of Fred Hutch's funding, is seeing its budget reduced by 5.1 percent. Many Fred Hutch grants, however, are seeing greater cuts.

"That can't help but translate into lives lost, into jobs lost ... and into people who are going to try other careers or take their research elsewhere," she said.

Sen. Patty Murray tours lab
Prior to Tuesday’s roundtable discussion, Dr. Aude Chapuis, a research associate in immunology in the Clinical Research Division, gave Sen. Patty Murray a tour of the Greenberg Lab with members of the local news media in tow. Chapuis told the senator about the Center’s federally funded research in T-cell therapy, which trains the immune system to recognize and attack cancers.

Murray toured a research lab and heard from more than a half-dozen leading scientists from Fred Hutch, Seattle Children's Research Institute, UW Medicine and the Pacific Northwest Diabetes Research Institute during a roundtable discussion that detailed sequestration's impact. Dr. Fred Appelbaum, director of Fred Hutch's Clinical Research Division, explained that NIH cuts are slowing some clinical trials and lab studies, while others are being halted before they start. This ultimately increases the number of people who are going to die from cancer and other related diseases, Appelbaum said.

Public Health Sciences Division Director Dr. Garnet Anderson, who also directs the Women's Health Initiative Clinical Coordinating Center, detailed how her team's research into the health consequences of hormone-replacement therapy is now saving 20,000 women from breast cancer each year. And that's just one part of Fred Hutch's broader push to improve women's health worldwide; Appelbaum also noted the Center's fundamental contributions to the development of a vaccine that prevents human papillomavirus infection and averts tens of thousands of cervical cancer cases each year.

Dr. Jim Olson, also of Clinical Research, outlined how sequestration endangers the growth of two companies he founded to improve cancer treatment and accelerate development of new cancer drugs. These companies, Seattle-based Presage Biosciences and Blaze Bioscience, rely heavily on NIH funding. Together they have created 33 jobs in the past three years and could create up to a thousand more.

But Olson recently saw funding for two key projects slashed and had to let his lab's most senior researcher leave for another job after 13 years.

"I got two emails within five minutes saying that two grants were funded at 45 percent of the level they were supposed to be," he said. "I lost six salaries."

Sequestration also threatens to derail a generation of young scientists on the verge of new discoveries.

Dr. Ingunn Stromnes has spent the past four years as a postdoctoral fellow training under Fred Hutch's Drs. Phil Greenberg and Sunil Hingorani. She has helped develop cutting-edge therapies that use the body's own immune system to potentially wipe out pancreas cancer without chemotherapy or radiation. But federal funding for Stromnes' work is being reduced just when she is trying to gain the footing to launch her own lab.

Projected impact to Center

If the sequester stays in place, it is projected that the Center's total revenue will fall from $441 million in the 2012 fiscal year to $400 million in the 2014 fiscal year, a decline of more than 9 percent, according to Randy Main, vice president and chief financial officer.

Stromnes, who is the mother of two small children, told Murray that these cuts could cause her and her young colleagues to give up on research and pursue more stable careers.

"Our research is extending lives and that leads me to believe a cure is in sight," Stromnes said. "But only with proper funding can we do things we need to do to make this a reality."

Murray took these stories as a call to renew her push to end the sequester and take a more balanced approach to deficit reduction. Thanks to Murray's leadership, the Senate recently passed a budget that carried no NIH cuts. The bill has not passed the House of Representatives.

"These are the wrong cuts at the wrong place at the wrong time," Murray said.

Roundtable participants:

  • U.S. Sen. Patty Murray
  • Dr. Fred Appelbaum, senior vice president and director, Clinical Research Division, Fred Hutch
  • Dr. Garnet Anderson, senior vice president and director, Public Health Sciences, Fred Hutch
  • Dr. Jim Olson, member, Clinical Research Division, Fred Hutch; co-founder of Blaze Bioscience and Presage Biosciences
  • Dr. Ingunn Stromnes, senior postdoctoral immunology researcher, Clinical Research Division, Fred Hutch
  • Dr. David Beier, director of the Center for Developmental Biology and Regenerative Medicine, Seattle Children's Research Institute
  • Dr. John Slattery, vice dean for Research and Graduate Education, University of Washington School of Medicine
  • Dr. John Wecker, president and CEO, Pacific Northwest Diabetes Research Institute
  • Michael Rubin, leukemia survivor and Fred Hutch Development officer; treated on an NIH-funded Fred Hutch protocol
  • Lisa Verner, non-Hodgkin survivor; treated on an NIH-funded Fred Hutch protocol 

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