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Wash U researchers warn that cuts to NIH funding could threaten public health

An illustration of prescription drugs.
Rici Hoffarth
St. Louis Public Radio
Between 2010 and 2016, the National Institutes of Health provided funding to 97 percent of drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

President Donald Trump's proposal to cut the National Institutes of Health 2018 budget by more than a fifth could severely hamper the ability to deliver life-saving treatments to patients, according to a report by Washington University researchers.

In a study published Thursday in the journal Cell Chemical Biology, researchers looked at 100 of the most prescribed drugs and drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration in the last decade. The NIH funded 93 percent of the 100 widely prescribed drugs and 97 percent of drugs approved between 2010 and 2016.

The dependence on federal funding is already having consequences on public health. said Michael Kinch, director of the Center for Research Innovation in Biotechnology and the Center for Drug Development at Wash U.


For example, he said, bacteria are developing resistance to antibiotic medicines faster than new drugs can be developed. Development of new antibiotics has been slow in part because of lack of funding for drug discovery. 

"The American population is growing older and fatter," Kinch said. "And we are confronting diseases like metabolic diseases and Alzheimer’s [disease] at a rate that we haven’t before and we are unprepared from a standpoint of the pharmaceutical industry to adequately address these."

In the past, pharmaceutical companies provided more funding for early stages of drug development. But that's been difficult to acquire, as new drugs have become costly to make — as much as $3 billion per drug on average. Also, it can take 10 to 12 years to develop a treatment, so investing in new drugs can appear risky to pharmaceutical and biotech companies. 

"You've got groups like the NIH – they're really the only organizations that are willing to do the early stage drug discovery," Kinch said. "And that might require additional federal funding later on in the research development pathway." 

Funding for the NIH has declined by about 30 to 40 percent since 2003. Kinch said the dependence on the NIH is unsustainable and could lead into a public health crisis in the near future. 

"While the NIH has tried to put some of its funding and dedicate it to drug discovery, the reality is, they're not capable of doing that," Kinch said. "It really requires folks who've done decades of drug discovery, practically speaking, to develop a new medicine. We need to think about a restructuring of how we develop new medicines overall and how we regulate them." 

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Eli is the science and environment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.