How Medical Research (Almost) Saved Your Life

By Atul Grover, MD

Originally posted as a Second Opinion article on September 17, 2013

This fall, Congress has returned to face what seems like an endless repetition of fiscal issues that our nation’s leadership can’t seem to resolve.  The debt.  The debt ceiling.  The SGR.  I’m sure that this Kabuki Theater is exhausting for thoughtful policymakers.  At least it is for voters watching from the sidelines.  What truly is frustrating is realizing that most of this comes down to math problems that could be solved by elementary school students (albeit with more zeroes).  Sadly, the longer they go unsolved, these equations may become fatal for those Americans whose health depends on lifesaving medical research.

Imagine that you accompany your father to his doctor’s visit and he’s told that he has cancer—a form of cancer with an average survival of five years.  You see a terrific oncologist at a university medical center who informs your family that there’s hope for your father in a Phase III clinical trial, one that might lead to drug approval in the next five years.  That timing just might be long enough for him to attend a second daughter’s wedding, meet a third grandchild, and much more.

Step back to the world of inside-the-beltway math and sequestration, and imagine the same scenario.  But instead of a clinical trial advancing, it’s stopped because Congress has continued to allow funding for biomedical research to stagnate.  In this case, the trial your father needs has been suspended.  Five years to a potential cure becomes six or seven years … time that your father doesn’t have before he’s gone.

This is exactly the scenario playing out at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and at research facilities across the nation.

The difference between five and seven years may be one congressional cycle to some, but to your family, it could mean the difference between life and death. Or the difference between your mother slipping away in an irreversible progression of dementia or having her there for her grandchildren’s graduation.  Imagine having your child continue to struggle through the daily challenges of managing diabetes because development of new treatments has been put on hold.  Delays and suspensions of even just a few studies may seem small when compared to the billions of dollars being cut from our nation’s research budget due to congressional inaction.  Every study matters to patients and their families.

As a physician, I have cared for patients that were just a few years too early for a trial or intervention that may have saved their lives.  As a son, I have lived through a cancer diagnosis of both parents, including the lymphoma that eventually took my father’s life—in roughly half the time of his expected survival rate.  His initial diagnosis occurred at a time when new immunotherapies were just beginning to show promise, though for his aggressive cancer, they weren’t enough.  I often wonder, “What if we had been just two or three years ahead on this research?”

Advances in research may have saved my father, and it could save your loved ones, too.  Research means hope for millions of Americans suffering from serious illnesses like cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, depression, and Parkinson’s disease.  It’s true that Congress has some tough choices to make.  But federal support for NIH-funded medical research is one thing that should not be on the list of cuts.

groverAtul Grover, M.D., Ph.D., is Chief Public Policy Officer of the Association of American Medical Colleges. Trained as a general internist, Dr. Grover holds faculty appointments at the George Washington University School of Medicine, where he earned his M.D.; and the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, where he obtained his Ph.D. in health and public policy. He can be reached at agrover@aamc.org or on Twitter @atulgrovermd.

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