It's still early in the process, but signs are pointing to a federal funding increase for the National Institutes of Health, and the availability of more NIH grant money could be good news for Mayo Clinic.
After 12 years of stagnant funding, with inflation and increasing costs of biomedical research, the NIH budget has lost more than 20 percent of its purchasing power since 2003.
This year, preliminary numbers coming from the president's budget and early congressional appropriations panels are taking a sharp turn upward, with proposed appropriations increases ranging from $1 billion per year in the president's budget to $2 billion per year from the Senate for next year.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar has been a longtime advocate of increasing NIH funding.
"If we are going to continue unlocking the cures and treatments of tomorrow, we need to boost our investments in biomedical research today," Klobuchar said in a written statement.
On top of the proposed appropriations increases, the House of Representatives passed an additional bill titled the "21st Century Cures Act" on July 10 that would provide $8.75 million in NIH funding over the next five years. A Senate version of the bill is still in the drafting process and may not proceed until late this year or early next year.
"This is a major change of an unfortunate direction that this funding has been taking in the past few years," Mayo Clinic researcher and Research Finance Committee chairman Stephen Riederer, Ph.D., said.
An increase in the NIH budget would allow for more grant money to be distributed to institutions across the country in the form of competitive grants. Mayo Clinic is one of the largest recipients of research grants from the NIH, and was awarded more than $141 million in the 2015 fiscal year, down from $229 million the previous year. In fiscal year 2014, Mayo Clinic's overall research budget was $648 million.
With flat-lined funding the past few years, Riederer said Mayo has been forced to shift some internal funding to keep research labs open during the "bridge period." The goal was to avoid closing labs and then spending months to retrain highly skilled lab staff after the federal funding returned to previous levels.
The static NIH budget levels have also made the level of competition for grants much higher. Although Mayo isn't guaranteed any funding increase if NIH funding does go up, it would be likely that more research grants would be available.
"The issue now is that there are more applications with merit being proposed by experienced researchers. They are not funding all these meritorious projects that could produce beneficial information because they don't have the funding," Riederer said.
Since the process of applying for grants occurs over several years, Riederer pointed out that if grant money was increased, it would take a few years to see the full effect on the Mayo Clinic.
Although all 27 institutes and centers in the NIH would likely share in the budget increases, different versions of appropriations have singled out certain research areas for extra funding. A few of the causes include Alzheimer's disease research, the BRAIN brain-mapping initiative, an antibiotics initiative, and precision medicine.
President Obama called for progress in precision medicine, the tailoring of treatments and diagnoses based on a person's genetic makeup, in his State of the Union address this year. Mayo Clinic has been on the forefront of precision medicine research and established its Center for Individualized Medicine in 2012.
"Having seen the Mayo Clinic's cutting-edge research on precision medicine firsthand, I know that we are on the cusp of medical breakthroughs that could revolutionize the prevention and treatment of numerous serious diseases," Klobuchar said in a written statement.
The 21st Century Care Act also includes funding for and changes to regulations in the Food and Drug Administration. NBC News reported the changes have drawn criticism, with some stating that the proposed measures would weaken FDA oversight and streamline the process for potentially unsafe drugs to make it into the market. However, the measure passed the House with a strong majority at 344-77.
The role of the FDA would come after research results in new knowledge that is translatable into patient treatment.
"The goal of all this is to improve patient care. That's what ultimately drives research," Riederer said.