The US needs to maintain the momentum of funding for biomedical research through the National Institutes of Health (NIH) if it does not want to squander the gains enabled this year and last through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, a new report warns.

The report by United for Medical Research (UMR), a coalition of US research institutions, patient advocates and biopharmaceutical interests, looks at how the US$10.4 billion invested over two years through the NIH under the 2009 Act is creating and preserving jobs as well as opening up new areas of research “in the service of better health and a healthier economy”.

At the same time, the UMR notes, there is no indication yet that the NIH funding momentum will be sustained in 2011 and beyond. “The Recovery Act has demonstrated that in this historic moment of science, the big ideas are out there. How much the US Congress commits to the National Institutes of Health will determine how many – and how quickly – transformative ideas are brought to life for patients, their families and the American economy,” it states.

The UMR report comes hard on the heels of a sobering analysis by University of Rochester and other researchers that was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) earlier this month.

The researchers found that growth in overall funding for biomedical research in the US had slowed down considerably between 2003 and 2007 compared with the previous five-year period. Moreover, inflation-adjusted funding by the NIH – by far the single largest supporter of biomedical research in the US – fell by 12% between 2003 and 2008.

The UMR report, Investing in Recovery and Discovery, notes that the Recovery Act investment in the NIH comes “at a propitious time” for biomedical science. “Scientists now have the opportunity to combat disease using newly gained knowledge about biological structures and functions,” it says.

“They no longer merely describe the symptoms of disease, employ everything they have against it, and watch to see what works. Instead, in important areas, they can employ the knowledge gained through more than 40 years of arduous study to zero in strategically on a disease, its triggers and crucial moments of development.”

New age of medicine

The report cites crucial advances over the last decade in areas such as genomics, proteomics and regenerative medicine, laying the pathway for “a new age of personalised medicine”.

But while many valuable projects will be completed within the time-frame of the Recovery Act funding, “many more equally promising ideas do not fit into the two-year window”, the UMR warns. Even with the fresh infusion of funds, past investments “have created such an explosion of new opportunities that the US is still not pursuing even a quarter of what our smartest minds have to offer”.

If NIH funding returns to pre-Recovery Act levels in 2011, the report adds, only about one in 10 of these proposals would get financial backing. The NIH already lost more than 15% of its purchasing power between 2003 and 2008.

“Researchers struggled to secure funding for high-risk, high-reward ideas as scarce resources tended to fund surer scientific bets. And scientists often celebrated their 43rd birthdays before celebrating their first NIH grants,” the UMR comments.

As baby boomers age, the next big economic threat will come from costs associated with millions of people living longer with “burdensome and as yet incurable” diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, diabetes, cancer, heart disease and stroke, the report points out.

“As a nation, we cannot return to putting so much potentially life-changing science on hold, particularly now, when strong investments in medical research could pay extraordinary dividends to our health and economic well-being,” it says.