Investigators specializing in brain and eye diseases warn in a new survey that many of their peers will leave the field, leaving future treatments undiscovered, unless research spending for the disorders rises significantly—a plea that comes as Washington is still wrestling with what if any cuts it will exact from NIH as part of a budget deal.

BrightFocus Foundation, the nonprofit that changed its name February 1 from American Health Assistance Foundation, shared the frustration of more than 170 biomedical scientists in survey results published this week. “Brain and Eye Disease Researcher Survey” reported near unanimity from the scientists on the survey’s key findings:

  • 96% concluded that limited funding was the top barrier to entry for new scientists interested in carrying out brain and eye disease research.
  • 94% contended that current levels of federal funding for brain and eye disease research were impeding scientific discoveries.
  • 91% went further, agreeing that current funding levels were driving scientists from the field.

“The funding issue is really their only structural concern. When we asked questions about how journals publish information, or how leadership at the department level or the culture of academia work, those were much lower on their radar,” Guy Eakin, Ph.D., vp of scientific affairs for BrightFocus Foundation, told GEN.

At issue is funding for disorders ranging from Alzheimer’s disease to glaucoma and macular degeneration. For Alzheimer’s, a one-time $50 million boost ordered by President Obama brought FY 2012 spending to an estimated $498 million—a figure expected to slide this fiscal year to $449 million, just $1 million above the actual FY 2011 amount. Over five years, Alzheimer’s spending increased a total 20.9% with the one-shot included, but just 8.7% without.

Last year, HHS unveiled its National Plan to Address Alzheimer’s Disease, a 69-page report committing Washington to “Prevent and Effectively Treat Alzheimer’s Disease by 2025,” according to one of five principles or “building blocks.” The plan is “extraordinarily valuable,” Dr. Eakin said, adding: “What is lacking right now is the financial side.” HHS’ Advisory Council on Alzheimer’s Research and Services sought to address that on January 14, by recommending at least $2 billion a year for Alzheimer’s research—a sum Dr. Eakin said BrightFocus supports.

That would catapult Alzheimer’s above the over $1 billion in research funds spent by NIH on diabetes, but still below the roughly $3 billion spent for research on HIV/AIDS, and nearly $5.5 billion spent on cancer.

The best-funded diseases vary in population prevalence: About 26 million Americans have diabetes, according to CDC, and another 13.7 million have cancer, NIH’s National Cancer Institute estimates.

However, just 1.15 million living Americans had HIV/AIDS as of 2009, the most recent figure from CDC. The brain and eye diseases highlighted by BrightFund affect some 20 million Americans—including the more than 5 million with Alzheimer’s alone, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

“While you’re not going to find scientists who say the funding is good for any of the disease fields, we would point out that given the prevalence of mind and eye diseases, given the aging demographics of our society, and in the case of Alzheimer’s, given the immediate unmet need, there is a profound effect of not having suitable research funds for these diseases,” Dr. Eakin added.

Spending on the broader “brain disorders” category is projected to inch up this federal fiscal year to $3.87 billion, down $3 million from the fiscal year that ended September 30, but up just 0.2% from $3.864 billion in FY 2011. Over five years NIH spending rose less than 4% from the $3.729 billion of FY 2008.

Eye disorders, however, command a tiny slice of NIH’s overall spending pie. For FY 2012, NIH estimates that $832 million was spent for research on “eye disease and disorders of vision,” all but flat from FY 2011’s actual $831 million, and 1% above the $823 million projected for the current fiscal year. Going back five federal fiscal years, spending in the category rose just 4.5% from the $796 million of FY 2008.

Raising spending for any research, let alone brain and eye disorders, will be far easier said than done, since Congress and President Obama at deadline remain unable to craft an agreement for cutting the $1.2 trillion over 10 years promised under the 2011 Budget Control Act, and the March 1 deadline looming two weeks away.

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