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Cancer cells
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Nobel Scientist: When Did We Start to Value Killing Over Living?

Ideas
Dr. Blackburn, a winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, is president of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies.

As human beings, we’re hardwired to stay alive. Neuroscientists explain that evolution has installed survival instincts into our brains, equipping us with a strong will to live. Thus, when pummeled by capricious catastrophes, stripped of possessions, metaphorically sent back to “GO,” we nevertheless emerge saying, “At least I’m alive.” And we forge on. Because above all else, we value life.

So when I review the proposed federal budget, I’m moved to wonder: When did we start to value killing over living? This budget, which increases defense spending by $54 billion, enabling us to fire more guns, drop bigger bombs and shoot deadlier missiles, at the same time decimates funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the organization actively helping us live longer and healthier lives. If approved, the proposed cuts of $5.8 billion — a roughly 20% decrease from 2017 spending — will drastically and illogically throttle the very accomplishments that are extending our lives. In recent years, NIH funding has led to medical breakthroughs that include cholesterol-lowering drugs, molecular targets for halting cancer’s spread and early diagnostics for neurological diseases. Every day, because of NIH’s monetary support, scientific researchers at America’s top institutions continue to announce new insights that are pointing the way to more effective medical treatments and longer lives.

And the pace of discovery is accelerating. Thanks to a rise in interdisciplinary collaboration — physicists working with biologists who consult with medical doctors and meet with sociologists — truly novel strategies for confronting disease are well under way. Mind-boggling technological advances such as CRISPR are allowing us to repair genetic mutations before they can cause devastating ailments. And access to big data — providing the ability to analyze hundreds of comprehensive studies, compare subject details and identify threads of commonality — is ultimately equipping physicians with the knowledge to match an individual patient with an ideal, newly discovered therapy. The breadth of this data is beyond the scope of any one medical professional.

We find ourselves, after decades of scientific research, in a position to move from battling a disease only after it’s been diagnosed, to effectively intercepting it before it spreads. We can now predict disease with ever greater accuracy and we can take steps to prevent it from taking hold in the first place. This places us on the threshold of an amazing era of scientific discovery. We can’t pull back now.

Because gutting NIH funding won’t simply suspend scientific research. It will kill it. Long-term studies will be shelved; laboratory teams with deep expertise that takes years to acquire will rapidly disintegrate. All of that incisive work and accumulated insight will have been for nothing. We’ll lose all of the gains we’ve made and, further, we’ll fall so far behind the disease curve that we’ll lose our ability to respond to the next national catastrophe. What if, as many military experts predict, the next terrorist attack is a biological one? Only a few years ago, a senior FBI official put the probability of a biological attack on the U.S. at 100%. Better than an expanded military defense budget, then, is an expanded health defense budget.

And speaking of terrorists, are we sure we’re defending ourselves against the real ones? Hasn’t cancer, for example, hurt more of our family members than any radicalized individual? Surely this wily disease is one of society’s biggest enemies. Yet guns and missiles won’t stop it. The best weapon we have for fighting cancer, as well as other enemies of modern society (diabetes, Alzheimer’s, obesity, Parkinson’s), is scientific research. I assure you that when your doctor says, “You have Stage 3 cancer,” you don’t battle it with a shiny new tank. You cripple its cellular mechanisms with knowledge born of NIH-supported research and you develop novel strategies to impede its spread.

That’s exactly what America’s most brilliant scientific minds are doing. Backed by NIH funding, our scientists are demonstrating how to use cellular signaling systems to break the impenetrable shells of pancreatic tumors. They’re engineering synthetic viruses that selectively target breast cancer cells. The immunotherapy treatment that former President Jimmy Carter received after a diagnosis of metastatic melanoma, a diagnosis that a short time ago would have been deemed fatal, was the result of 40 years of incremental successes in understanding how to harness the body’s immune system. All of this long-term scientific research, much of it funded by the NIH, bestows life.

If the Administration proceeds to recklessly grab all that funding from science and put it, instead, into guns aimed across our borders, we will unwittingly allow an unseen enemy to infiltrate: the next and inevitable viral disease pandemic. It will have free rein to surge through our communities, with disastrous consequences, because in addition to slashing support for the NIH, this administration is proposing a $314 million cut to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Robbed of the ability to forearm ourselves with knowledge and medical tools, scientists will be relegated to watching helplessly as countless people die.

Real threats do exist in today’s world. And scientific research presents both a good offense and a good defense. Surely we value human lives enough to continue support.


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