New Directions and Opportunities
Also pursuing Department of Defense (DoD) research funding is James M. Wilson, M.D., Ph.D., professor and director of the Gene Therapy Program in the department of pathology and laboratory medicine at University of Pennsylvania, where he is also a professor in the department of internal medicine.
Earlier this year, Dr. Wilson’s lab joined the Rockefeller University and California Institute of Technology (CalTech) in winning funding from the Defense Research Projects Agency (DARPA) for research into applications of adeno-associated viral (AAV) vectors as countermeasures for pandemic respiratory infections such as those caused by influenza viruses.
Securing DoD funding required Dr. Wilson’s lab adapt its science to align with agency objectives.
“You can’t go to DoD and ask them to fund fundamental research such as Drosophila genetics. We spend a fair amount of time understanding the strategic priorities of the DoD,” Dr. Wilson said. “Based on this work we conducted some pilot studies to assess feasibility. We then determined whether the kind of research we would be asked to pursue was of interest to our scientists. In the end we found the science interesting and capable of progressing our technology platforms.”
Dr. Wilson’s lab has also stepped up efforts to secure industry sponsors. The lab is close to completing a research agreement with a second company; the first is ReGenX BioSciences, whose NAV™ technology promises faster onset and higher levels of gene expression and longer-lasting gene expression than earlier recombinant AAVs. Dr. Wilson is scientific founder of the company, which holds exclusive worldwide rights to key intellectual property for rAAVs discovered in his lab; UPenn formed ReGenX along with GlaxoSmithKline and Foxkiser.
“What sequestration has forced us to do is be more flexible in the kind of things that we’re doing in the laboratory, which has led to very interesting new directions for our research,” Dr. Wilson said. “Working with these nontraditional sponsors has created some challenges such as more intensive oversight and milestone-driven work plans that can be pulled at any time. The advantages however far outweigh the disadvantages, and have led to opportunities in terms of science and resources.”
While some labs and PIs are able to pursue these opportunities, not all are as fortunate. “The federal government must find a targeted approach to overcome our nation’s debt and deficit problem without harming the investments that invent new technologies, spur economic growth and save American lives,” ASBMB and partners rightly conclude.
That means Washington ending the budget drama that over the past decade has shrunk NIH spending adjusted for inflation 29% since 2003, according to the Federation of American Scientists for Experimental Biology. The House of Representatives doesn’t seem to expect a budget deal until December 15, the end date of yet another temporary spending bill or “continuing resolution” introduced Tuesday by House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-KY). Encouragingly, the bill would allow transfers of appropriated-but-unspent “unobligated” funds for biodefense priorities that include funding BARDA research and responding to flu and other pandemics. But the measure would also lock in sequestration cuts, and force the Senate to first vote on defunding Obamacare, both of which Democrats oppose.
In today’s divided Congress, an NIH spending solution will likely await an overall budget agreement that may address other agency issues—the parties are divided on how much social sciences research NIH should fund, for example—or agreements for spending on other agencies. Either is bad news for investigators already scrambling for basic research funds.