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Sequestration Threatens University of Utah Health Research

Andrea Smardon

The University of Utah expects to lose 19 million dollars of its medical research budget as a result of sequestration. KUER looks at how that loss will impact the research, industry, and health of the state. 

In the Genetics building, on the wall of cardiologist Dean Li’s lab is a map of North and South Korea. He uses it as inspiration for a pair of graduate students. North Korea, in this case, represents cancer. 

“This is something that I put up on Jae’s desk to remind home what we’re really trying to do. This is us, a cardiology lab, invading the field of cancer,” Li says.

Li is Vice Dean of Research for the School of Medicine, and historically, he has been well funded.  His lab is focused on inflammation and its effect on cells.  He believes his work could have an impact on a range of diseases including cancer, arthritis, and influenza. For him, sequestration means he has to make hard choices about what he can study. 

“I have to be very careful how I invade into cancer given this funding issue,” Li says. “I can‘t shift my whole lab to invade cancer, but if you ask me where do I think I can make the biggest mortality difference?  It might be in cancer.”

Li says some areas of disease research like cancer have been steadily losing funding, and now with sequestration, only 5 to 6 percent of research proposals get funded. As an administrator at the U, Li is concerned that many research proposals from senior scientists are being rejected.

“You could potentially see valuable people with 20 years of research experience who have contributed to the field have to shutter their labs,” Li says.  

More significantly, Li is worried that the younger generation of scientists is getting discouraged and leaving the field. The result, he says, is that the entire industry contracts over time. 

“I think you will see less graduate students, less postdoctoral fellows, less laboratories, less discoveries that can truly fuel a change in patient care 10,20,30 years from now,” Li says.

Li’s graduate student who is trying to invade the field of cancer, Jae Hyuk Yoo, lives in fear that he might have to go back to South Korea.

“I don’t want to go back to Korea.  I just want to stay here to study for cancer biology,” Hyuk Yoo says. “If they cut the money, we don’t have anything to study. I’m really worried about that.” 

Andrea Smardon
University of Utah Senior Vice President for Health Sciences Vivian Lee

The University is losing 19 million dollars mostly in grants from the National Institutes of Health due to sequestration. Senior Vice President for Health Sciences at the University, Vivian Lee says in the short term, the cuts cause a chilling effect on the science. She says, in the long term, the public will miss out on health discoveries.

“Tomorrow, are our lives going to be changed? No, they’re not. But In the next 10-20 years, the discoveries that are now ongoing that are moving their way into clinical practice – those are the ones that are getting shut off, so it’s going to have a huge impact down the line,” Lee says.

Dean Li says it’s not just public health at stake; the state and the country are at risk of losing a competitive advantage. 

“That’s I think a very stark threat to Utah’s stamp as well as America’s stamp on the biomedical enterprise, which is an industry that the US does control,” Li says.

Li himself has received generous job offers from institutions in China and Singapore. And he is already seeing students choose to study or work outside the US. 

“There are other countries who are actually watching in amazement the United States retreat from this sort of investment,” Li says. “They’re incredulous about it, but they’re incredulous with a smile. It gives them a tremendous opportunity to grab a pole position in something we have been the leaders in.”

The Obama administration’s proposed budget restores some funding for biomedical research, but Congress has yet to approve a budget. In the meantime, sequestration is in effect, and medical researchers are making choices that they say could affect health discoveries in this country for decades to come.

Andrea Smardon is new at KUER, but she has worked in public broadcasting for more than a decade. Most recently, she worked as a reporter and news announcer for WGBH radio. While in Boston, she produced stories for Morning Edition, Marketplace Money, and The World. Her print work was published in The Boston Globe and Prior to that, she worked at Seattleââ
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