Heather J. Carlson, hcarlson@postbulletin.com

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar warned on Tuesday that failing to restore federal funding for medical research will not only hurt work being done at Mayo Clinic and the University of Minnesota, but could also end up costing the nation more in the long run.

Klobuchar, DFL-Minn., held a news conference at the University of Minnesota Rochester to voice her support for restoring funding for National Institutes of Health grants. The automatic across-the-board cuts known as sequestration meant a $1.55 billion cut to NIH grants. Those cuts took effect this year after Congress failed to agree on a deficit-reduction plan.

"Researchers in our state have told me they literally cannot think of any cure or anything that is done clinically that wasn't influenced with the research that was made possible by NIH," Klobuchar said.

She was joined by Dr. Ronald Petersen, director of Mayo Clinic's Alzheimer's Disease Research Center. Petersen said the clinic relies on funding from the National Institutes of Aging, one of the 27 institutes within the NIH, to fund a study examining aging in Olmsted County. Mayo Clinic has teamed up with Olmsted Medical Center to monitor more than 4,000 people between the ages of 50 and 90 on a year-to-year basis. The goal is to come up with a risk formula to help determine the probability of an individual developing Alzheimer's. The hope is early interventions will be developed that could prevent the onset of the disease or at least slow it down.

Funding implications

Mayo Clinic is seeking to renew funding for the project. If that fails to happen, Petersen said the study would have to be shut down and the 25 to 30 people who work on it would be reassigned or laid off. 

"To stop a study like that would be devastating because we cannot restart it. If we started it two, three, five years later, we would lose all that information," he said.

Another fear is the spending reductions could lead some talented young researchers to abandon the field out of frustration, said Petersen. He said only one in 10 applications being sent to the National Institutes of Aging are receiving funding, meaning plenty of worthy projects are rejected.

Personal story

Bernice Limper is among those participating in the local aging study. She said she jumped at the chance to be part of the research, having watched her own mother struggle with Alzheimer's disease in the early 1980s. At that time, little was known about the disease.

"It got so bad I would have to lock myself in a bedroom with her and keep the key on myself or she would get out and roam the neighborhood," she said.

Limper said she ended up wondering whether she would get Alzheimer's disease like her mother and wanted to do what she could to support this local research.

"We've taken a giant step forward on the moon for mankind, and I believe if these studies are not funded, it will be a giant step backward. Period," she said.

As the nation ages, Alzheimer's disease's cost to the nation is expected to soar to $1 trillion by 2050, Klobuchar said. Even if doctors were able to successfully delay the onset of Alzheimer's disease by five years, that would cut the estimated cost to taxpayers by half.

Despite all the political gridlock in Washington, D.C., Klobuchar said she remains optimistic a budget deal can be reached that replaces sequestration cuts with more targeted cuts aimed at reducing the nation's long-term debt. Both the Senate and the House have passed their own budget proposals. She said the Senate is waiting on the House to set up a conference committee to begin negotiating a final proposal.

She added, "We need to take a much longer term approach to (the budget) and have targeted spending cuts instead of balancing the budget on the backs of Alzheimer's patients," she said.


Sequestration is $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts due to go into effect over the next 10 years, with roughly $85 billion slated for this year.