April, 2012

Funding for Health Sciences Research

Conducting research is one of the key missions of any academic health center, and it's a fundamental characteristic that distinguishes institutions like Penn State Hershey from other hospitals in the community. But biomedical research is expensive, and increasingly, researchers are having difficulty getting even the most excellent proposals funded. This challenge has become especially acute since the economic downturn in 2008. Government support for research is being cut back not only at the federal level, but also by many states, including Pennsylvania. In addition, many private sources of support for research - including philanthropic foundations and non-profit organizations - have reduced the amount of funding available, in response to the reduced value of their endowments or diminished philanthropic support these organizations rely on.

One particular source of research funding that has been especially important to Penn State Hershey and other research institutions in Pennsylvania is the Commonwealth Universal Research Enhancement (CURE) program. While CURE is not our largest source of research funding, it is a vital one. Not only has CURE provided funding that we have been able to leverage into additional, larger-scale grants through the National Institutes of Health (NIH), but it has also enabled us to recruit new, talented researchers and to create additional jobs to support their research efforts. The research supported by CURE funds has led directly to advancements in our ability to prevent and treat illnesses including cancer and cardiovascular disease. Notably, CURE funds make an important symbolic statement by taking funds recovered from tobacco companies in a landmark legal settlement and investing them in research that will advance public health.

The CURE program was established in 2001 when then-Governor Tom Ridge signed into law the Tobacco Settlement Act (Act 77) after it was passed by the Pennsylvania General Assembly. Pennsylvania was one of only a small number of states that committed to using 100% of their tobacco settlement dollars for health programs. In Pennsylvania, tobacco settlement dollars have been used to support health-related research, through the CURE program, as well as tobacco prevention and cessation programs and other health care initiatives. Transforming funds paid by tobacco companies as compensation for smoking-related illness into a significant source of support for health research and public health initiatives is an achievement Pennsylvania can be proud of - but now that legacy is being threatened with extinction by a proposal to move these tobacco settlement funds into the state's general fund. Such an approach may solve budget problems in the short term, but it does so at the expense of continued investment in Pennsylvania's future and the health of its citizens.

The research projects supported by CURE encompass a broad range of strategic research areas, including bioengineering, cancer, diabetes, heart and vascular disease, nanotechnology, neuroscience, and genomic, proteomic, and bioinformatics approaches to understanding human disease. At Penn State College of Medicine, CURE grants have supported research led by Ian Zagon, Ph.D., professor of neural and behavioral sciences, examining the role of opioid growth factor (OGF) receptors in pancreatic cancer. Dr. Zagon's research, which suggests a novel approach to slowing the proliferation of cancer cells, has translated into additional funding from NIH for clinical trials. CURE funding was also instrumental in equipping our Sleep Research and Treatment Center with the state-of-the-art technologies needed to conduct innovative sleep research, thereby supporting an important component of what, at the time, was our General Clinical Research Center (GCRC). Similarly, grants from the CURE program have supported the development of our drug discovery programs, a fundamental aspect of any translational research effort. Within our Department of Pharmacology, CURE funds have supported the work of numerous investigators, including Dr. Mark Kester's research on nanotechnology as a delivery mechanism for targeted therapies. Notably, Dr. Kester's research has led to the successful creation of a company based on this research, as well as to several patents and licensing agreements, demonstrating once again the vital role research funding can play in creating a foundation for economic development.

We have also selectively invested CURE funds in new research programs proposed by newly recruited scientists, support for outstanding scientists who need both continuity of their ongoing, NIH-supported work and the opportunity to start new projects, and to foster promising young scientists to start their own productive careers. To date, this "bridge" funding has been awarded to 15 researchers for a total investment of nearly $1.2 million. Of these 15 awards, 14 of the project researchers have successfully renewed their external funding for a total of $25.9 million, a return on investment of 23:1.

These are just a few examples of how CURE funds have been invested on our campus in ways that not only advance knowledge but also develop the infrastructure needed for the continued growth of our research enterprise. Enhancements to research infrastructure not only support current research, they also make it possible to recruit new investigators, expand into new areas of research, and attract additional external research support, including major NIH grants. The research programs we have developed using CURE dollars positioned Penn State Hershey to secure a coveted NIH Clinical and Translational Science Award (CTSA), one of only 60 such awards in the nation, which will enhance and accelerate the translation of research advances into improvements in patient care and public health.

Funding for health research doesn't simply increase scientific knowledge and improve health. It also creates jobs and boosts the regional economy. Currently, the National Institutes of Health estimates that every dollar of biomedical research funding translates into an additional two dollars in local economic impact and new business activity; in central Pennsylvania, that multiplier is even higher than the national average, with each dollar generating an additional $2.32 in the regional economy. Over the past ten years, the $104 million Penn State Hershey has received in CURE funding has translated into more than $230 million in additional business activity within central Pennsylvania. When one considers the role CURE funding has played in enabling many of our researchers to receive additional, larger grants, which in turn have a multiplier effect in our region, the total economic impact is even more significant.

Even more concretely than estimating the total economic impact, we can point to the more than 100 jobs on our campus that are directly supported through CURE funds. It's important to note that the jobs sustained by CURE funding include not only those of scientists on our faculty who have received these funds, but also technicians, support staff, construction and trade workers, postdoctoral fellows, and others. By providing support for postdoctoral fellows, CURE funds and other research grants not only create jobs but also advance the training of the next generation of biomedical scientists, an invaluable contribution to ensuring continued progress in science and discovery. Ultimately, CURE funds also lead to many additional jobs through the commercialization of research discoveries; according to a study conducted by consultant Tripp Umbach to measure the economic impact of tobacco funds on Penn State University, the total new and sustained employment from commercialization of research attributable to the initial investment of tobacco funds at Penn State is projected to reach nearly 1,125 full-time, high-paying jobs by 2015.

CURE funds are not the only research funding under threat, but we have a unique opportunity to preserve them. Because these funds are drawn from the Commonwealth's share of tobacco-settlement dollars, they are distinct from other sources of state revenue. These funds would not exist if not for a landmark agreement that was designed to address one of the most critical public health issues of our day - tobacco use. Preserving the CURE program would demonstrate Pennsylvania's continued leadership by maintaining its important commitment to using the state's tobacco-settlement dollars to improve the health and well-being of our citizens, while also strengthening the health and long-term vitality of our economy. It's a wise investment that has paid enormous dividends and will continue to do so in the future.

 

Harold L. Paz, M.D.
Chief Executive Officer, Penn State Hershey Medical Center
Senior Vice President for Health Affairs, Penn State
Dean, Penn State College of Medicine