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Stanford researchers defend NIH and relevance of basic research

A trio of Stanford researchers rose to the defense of the National Institutes of Health and of the importance of basic research in a letter (subscription required) published this week in the Wall Street Journal.

"Research in basic biology is an uncertain business. Pharma and biotech don't fund this type of research because it's too unpredictable and long-term. But almost all new drugs developed in the past few decades couldn't have been developed without new basic biology discoveries," write microbiologist Mark Davis, PhD, Nobel Laureate Paul Berg, PhD, and biochemist Peter Kim, PhD.

The letter was prompted by a recent Wall Street Journal commentary, "Don't thank big government for medical breakthroughs," written by free market advocate and hematologist Tom Stossel, MD. It fueled an outpouring of comments.

In it, Stossel argues that medical progress is due, in large part, to private industry and that federal funding only "uncommonly and inefficiently" produces positive clinical outcomes.

Davis, who directs the Stanford Institute for Immunity, Transplantation and Infection, and his co-authors, disagree strongly, writing:

Dr. Tom Stossel’s analysis and conclusions display a shocking degree of ignorance about what the National Institutes of Health funds and what pharma and biotech do... The NIH largely funds basic research into biological processes and specific diseases. Biotech and pharmaceutical companies create and develop drugs based on these discoveries. Both activities are hard and require long timelines, but they are fundamentally different.

Take the recent progress in cancer immunotherapy, they write. It began after years of basic research — "much of it funded by the NIH." Because of that initial research, pharmaceutical companies were able to make drugs that enable dramatic changes in patients' health. "So to understand the role of the NIH, it is critical to understand its role as an engine of discovery," the scientists explain.

Previously: Nobel laureate Tom Südhof makes the case for basic scienceStanford researchers protest NIH funding restrictions, Basic research underlies effort to thwart "greatest threat to face humanity" and The dawn of DNA cloning: Reflections on the 40th anniversary
Photo by tpsdave

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