Upbeat reports on medical research highlight value of federal, private funding
It’s nice to read the news these days and come across something even remotely positive. Amid talk of a double-dip recession, stubbornly high joblessness rates and the latest partisan sniping in Washington and on the campaign trail, an optimistic story is most welcome. In the past month, such encouraging news has come from the medical research front. Just last week, researchers based out of Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago reported that they had discovered the common mechanism at work in all forms of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, best known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease. In these patients, the body’s muscles gradually deteriorate, leading to disability, paralysis and, ultimately, death. The disease is estimated to affect about 350,000 patients worldwide.
According to the research team, the basis of the disorder is a failed protein recycling system in the neurons of the spinal cord and the brain. Normal functioning of the neurons requires efficient recycling of proteins critical to cell development. In ALS patients, because the system is broken, cells can’t stay healthy or repair themselves, having a cascading effect.
With the discovery of this root cause, scientists are now so many steps closer to developing treatments for a disease that has essentially been untreatable. The breakthrough also could lead to progress in other neurodegenerative diseases such as dementia and Parkinson’s disease, says Dr. Teepu Siddique, a professor of neurology at Northwestern who was the senior author of the study published in the journal Nature.
Meanwhile, there was another report this month on a potentially promising research outcome, this one involving an experimental treatment for leukemia.
Scientists were successful in converting the patients’ own blood cells into “assassins” genetically trained to attack cancer cells. To date, researchers have had limited success in attempts to supercharge the body’s immune system to fight cancer.
But according to an Associated Press report, Dr. Carl June, a gene therapy expert at the University of Pennsylvania, and his team made changes to previous techniques, using a novel method to deliver new genes into blood cells as well as a signaling mechanism to order the cells to kill and multiply.
“It worked great. We were surprised it worked as well as it did,” June said. “We’re just a year out now. We need to find out how long these remissions last.”
Other researchers are urging caution because the study involved only three patients. “Three’s better than one, but it’s not 100,” say Dr. Walter Urba, a medical oncologist at Providence Cancer Center in Portland, Ore., and an author of an editorial on the research that appeared in the New England
Journal of Medicine. What happens long term is key, he says. Those two words—“long term”—are applicable to all research. It takes years of investment, in time and especially money, working toward and hoping for that breakthrough. So as the debate in our nation’s capital starts heating up again with yet another deadline approaching to get something settled concerning our federal budget, the future of research funding hangs in the balance.
Medical conditions from AIDS to cancer to Alzheimer’s disease all draw millions of dollars through private fundraising organizations. And that pipeline is vital. According to a news report, one Chicagoarea foundation alone has raised $42 million in the past 30 years to fund ALS research, much of it going to Northwestern.
But when it comes to research, federal funding is the critical spigot. And it’s essential to the long-term public health of this nation that such spending be spared the ax when Congress starts pinpointing budget lines to target. This is money that truly delivers bang for the buck.
Let’s keep the good news flowing. DAVID MAY Assistant Managing