Medical breakthroughs at UC in danger due to spending cuts, doctor says

Brain images from UC's MRI showing areas that light-up in a mind affected by bipolar disorder.
Brain images from UC's MRI showing areas that light-up in a mind affected by bipolar disorder.
Dr. Stephen Strakowksi, a medical doctor who's leading UC's research into bipolar disorder.
Dr. Stephen Strakowksi, a medical doctor who's leading UC's research into bipolar disorder.

CINCINNATI, OH (FOX19) - A couple of Fridays ago, a call came in at UC's College of Medicine that researchers weren't expecting. Because of the sequester, the federal government is cutting 20 percent of the funding for a program looking into better ways to treat drug addiction, the researchers were told.

"It was unanticipated and we had no knowledge of it until then," said Dr. Stephen Strakowski, M.D. "And it's coming down fast. So suddenly we have employees we can't support and faculty who have to find something else to do. And the research itself is going to start slowing down and dragging."

Dr. Strakowski is deeply involved in the funding for medical research projects at UC. As a psychiatrist, he's also doing research of his own. Using an MRI machine that's more powerful than those found in most hospitals, he and his staff are looking at the brains of children and young people. Some are healthy. Some suffer from bipolar disorder, formerly known as manic depression. Strakowski and his team are studying why the periods of time that a bipolar patient is well tends to decline as they grow-up.

"And we're studying what's changing in the brain causing that," he said.

The hope is better diagnoses, better treatment, and perhaps even a better drug someday. But Dr. Strakowski will have to do it without much help from the federal government. The grant that used to fund his study disappeared. In this case, he can't prove the sequester caused it. But he suspects that's the case.

These automatic spending cuts in Washington resulted from a complex game of "chicken" that President Obama and Congressional Republicans have been playing over the national debt, which is currently nearing $17 trillion. No one reportedly thought the sequester would ever go into effect when both sides agreed to make it a consequence of further gridlock on budget issues. But that's exactly what happened.

"And I think the sequester was necessary because we needed to do something to get the debt and deficit under control," said Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio). "But it's not the best policy."

He says the next opportunity to either change the way the sequester works or to reach a budget compromise is next month when the federal budget year comes to an end. Congress returns to Capitol Hill on September 9. The budget year ends September 30. Meanwhile, in mid-October, the Treasury Department expects the United States to hit the debt ceiling, a legal limit Congress must raise so that the U.S. doesn't default on its debt.

"I think we ought to provide more flexibility short-term," said Sen. Portman, suggesting Congress allow the Obama Administration to fund worthwhile programs like medical research. "Long-term, Congress ought to do its work and actually write appropriations bills that get rid of programs that aren't working."

It's not just UC that's facing a new funding frontier when it comes to paying for medical research. Universities across the country are suddenly confronting it. If the sequester continues, Dr. Strakowski worries medical breakthroughs will be delayed as researchers decide to switch their focus to other areas of their career.

"It gets very hard to build a research career if you're early in your career during tight times," he said. "This happened in the early 90s/late 80s and we lost effectively a ten-year 'generation' of researchers who just give-up and go into other careers."

Many researchers, like Dr. Strakowski, are medical doctors. Some even have a Ph.D. in addition to an M.D. They may decide to spend their careers seeing patients one-on-one rather than engaging in research which could help millions of people around the world.

"I think we are at a risky time of watching our science slow down," said Dr. Strakowski, "(as) universities really struggle and potentially losing a generation of young researchers."


More on the sequester:

The Washington Post's look at how we got nearly $17 trillion in debt –

Businessweek on the jobs that could've been created were it not for the sequester –

Politico's look at both parties' negotiating strategies this fall –

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