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Washington U Med School goes after stimulus money for medical research

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 5, 2009 - In April of last year, faculty members at the Washington University School of Medicine filed 174 applications for federal research grants. In April of this year, the number rose to 615. The spike underscores the intensity of a race among universities to win a hefty share of the $10.4 billion in stimulus money that the National Institutes of Health will award for medical research and facilities.

Compared to the very public scramble among Missouri lawmakers and lobbyists for stimulus money, the contest for research and construction dollars among universities is much quieter. But the competition can be "brutal," in the words of Dr. Larry Shapiro, dean of the Medical School at Washington University.

That's why the med school is taking nothing for granted, aware that it's up against stiff contenders and is filing what is believed to be a record number of grant applications to boost its chances.

The governor and state lawmakers control most stimulus dollars for Missouri -- but not the money for medical research. The decisions about which medical projects get funded will be made by peer review teams set up by NIH, and the money will flow directly to the winners. But, like state stimulus dollars, the money for medical research comes with some unusual federal demands:

  • It must be spent within two years;
  • The universities must demonstrate more transparency than usual about where and how the funding was used;
  • They must show how many jobs were created.

NIH's stimulus program includes about $8 billion for medical research and $2 billion for construction connected to the research. Washington University hopes its many applications will help it capture tens of millions of dollars of this money. (So does St. Louis University.)
"How successful we will be, we don't know, but it could be a substantial amount of money," says Shapiro of his med school.

Ambitious Research Projects

Washington University created quite a buzz in medical circles around the globe last fall when it became the first to sequence the genome of a cancer patient, a woman, finding the genetic roots of her acute myelogenous leukemia. The medical team behind this feat included researchers from the Genome Sequencing Center, the Siteman Cancer Center, and Barnes-Jewish Hospitals.

One of the university's grant applications seeks to build on that pioneering work. Shapiro believes the med school has advanced the technology to the point of decoding the complete DNA of several hundred cancer patients. The purpose, he says, would be "to learn about the fundamental causes of different kinds of cancer,how better to treat them and which drugs patients are likely to respond to."

He says, "This is a major project requiring lots of funding. It's one of the exciting projects that we're pursuing stimulus funding for."

Construction Plans

The university also hopes that some of the $2 billion portion of NIH funds for construction will go to the BJC Institute for Health building now being constructed on the southwest corner of Euclid Avenue and Children's Place.

The other hope, Shapiro says, is for stimulus funding to support work in five separate research centers -- for cancer, cardiovascular disease, neurodegenerative disease and infectious diseases, and membrane excitability disorders -- in the new building.

"This will be interdisciplinary research, people coming together from a number of different areas of science to solve important medical problems," Shapiro says.

Shapiro is reluctant to say how much stimulus money the university hopes to get for these and other proposals. But competing for grants is nothing new to the Wash U. med school, which conducts $480 million in sponsored research each year -- $400 million of that from NIH grants. In fact, the university is one of the top three or four medical schools in the country for NIH grants.

NIH's annual research budget of about $30 billion didn't increase during the final five years of the Bush administration, Shapiro says. That meant competition for grants "has been really brutal for our faculty."

Even so, Washington University usually receives about 1.7 percent of NIH's budget each year. If the Medical School got 1.7 percent of the $8 billion in NIH stimulus money for research, that would mean roughly $130 million over two years, Shapiro notes.

"Not to raise people's expectations, but we're hoping we'll get tens of millions of dollars," Shapiro says. "Certainly we might do better -- or we might do worse."

Creation of New Jobs

One big requirement of the stimulus money is to create new jobs during this economic downturn. Besides its role in health care, the Washington University medical complex is also a regional economic engine. It employs about 8,500 people, the largest share of total university employment of over 12,000.

Stimulus funding will boost employment. Shapiro says the general rule is that every $1 million a year in increased funding for research results in roughly nine new jobs. These include Ph.D. scientists, research technicians, clerical and administrative workers and workers who maintain lab and research facilities.

Shapiro welcomes any stimulus because it opens the door for more medical research and strengthens the university financially during an economic downturn. But he hints at one disadvantage.

"We have to do things that we think can be done within two years," he says. "Then, of course, we have to consider and worry about the sustainability of those projects after that two-year time frame is up."

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.