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Saving Lives in the 21st Century and Beyond | Commentary

By Mary Woolley New technology such as CRISPR-Cas9, a genuine scientific breakthrough, is raising hope for patients with cancer, cystic fibrosis, sickle-cell anemia and other major health threats. The gene editing tool, used in precision medicine, allows changes to be introduced into the DNA of any living cell— potentially enabling repair of disease causing mutations, neutralization of disease carrying insects and much more. This technology, developed with support from the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, is an example of the realization of the promise of innovative research funded by our federal science agencies.  

In recent testimony before a key subcommittee in the Senate, Dr. Keith Yamamoto, executive vice dean of the school of medicine at University of California, San Francisco, described the importance of federally funded research in the “development of new technologies that produce progress in leaps rather than steps.” Members of Congress from both sides of the aisle are also making the case that it is time for our nation to put more muscle behind medical innovation. During that same hearing, Subcommittee Chair Ted Cruz, R-Texas, noted that the U.S. is “paying billions and trillions on the back end” to deal with the consequences of disease rather than paying on the front end to develop cures. He said the nation is expected to spend $226 billion on treatment for Alzheimer’s disease and dementias in 2015 — nearly four times the amount spent last year alone.  

In remarks at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Washington, D.C., Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., observed that we are closer to halting the progression of many deadly diseases. “To abandon these promising research efforts and lose the race for new treatments and cures now because of short-sighted budget cuts would be irresponsible in the extreme,” he argued. A plurality of Americans agree that government spending for biomedical and health research is not enough, according to national public opinion polling commissioned by Research!America.  

The 21st Century Cures Act, approved by the House in June, aims to responsibly accelerate the discovery, development and delivery of new therapies for patients. This bipartisan bill includes much-needed funding to help scientists around the nation supported by the NIH advance our understanding of complex diseases in the push to find solutions to what ails us, as well as funding and policy changes to help equip the Food and Drug Administration to streamline clinical trials and the drug approval process.  

The Senate is also committed to advancing legislation to ensure our research ecosystem continues to support cutting-edge research and private sector innovation to bring new treatments, diagnostics and medical devices to market. Elected officials are in sync with the public’s hopes and expectations for medial progress. Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and ranking member Patty Murray, D-Wash., of the Senate HELP Committee, are actively engaged in efforts to address the health and economic challenges confronting many Americans.  

But the dedication and passion of House and Senate champions will not help a single American now or in the future unless legislation passes both Houses and is signed into law. If our elected officials in Washington commit to reaching the finish line this year, there is no doubt in my mind they will save lives. If that is not an urgent priority, I am not sure what is.  

Mary Woolley is president and CEO of Research!America.  

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