Nearly $6 billion in cuts to the National Institutes of Health in President Donald Trump’s proposed budget could “devastate” Scripps Florida at a time when scientists at the Jupiter campus say they’re making progress on non-addictive opioids.
“This will cripple Scripps research, a cut like this. It could literally result in the loss of our institute in the state of Florida, and I don’t think that’s an exaggeration,” said Brock Grill, an associate professor in Scripps’ Department of Neuroscience.
Gill and four other Scripps professors sounded the alarm Wednesday at a news conference organized by Florida Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, who said Trump’s budget plan is “counterproductive” to addressing the opioid epidemic sweeping the country.
In a letter Tuesday, Nelson asked Tom Price, the secretary of Health and Human Services, to consider expanding Medicaid in Florida to provide treatment for poor people suffering from opioid addiction.
“If Florida expanded its Medicaid program, would it be able to increase access to treatment for those with opioid use disorder? And would expanding Medicaid help the state avoid the rising costs associated with the opioid crisis and mental health needs?” Nelson wrote.
Nelson’s potential Republican opponent in the 2018 Senate race, Gov. Rick Scott, backed the Florida House’s decision in 2015 to reject Medicaid expansion under President Barack Obama.
On Wednesday, in a conference room at the West Palm Beach library, Nelson asked the Scripps scientists and professors to help him “fight back on these cuts” by explaining the research they’re doing to curb the opioid epidemic.
He also noted that Scripps Florida is in one of the hardest-hit counties in Florida. Nearly 600 people died of accidental opioid overdoses last year in Palm Beach County.
Last year, Scripps brought in a record $40 million in NIH grants. Scripps’ budget and its scientists’ research is financed almost entirely by NIH dollars, Grill said.
Scripps is the linchpin in the county’s investment in biotech, receiving more than $500 million in state and county subsidies since then-Gov. Jeb Bush wooed the San Diego-based center to Florida in 2003.
If Scripps loses researchers, it hurts the county effort to draw high-paying science jobs.
“The trickle-down effects of the proposed NIH cuts would come into the pockets of Palm Beach County taxpayers,” said County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay, who attended the news conference.
Research at Scripps Florida ranges from the Zika virus and HIV vaccines to cancer and aging. Another area is addiction research, which includes work on a non-addictive opioid.
“We have made a lot of advances thanks to the funding we have received. We have compounds now that will relieve pain in rodent models and not induce the overdose, not have the respiratory affects. That, I think, is a really big advance,” said Laura Bohn, a professor with Scripps’ Department of Molecular Medicine.
“Our goal is within the next year to identify the lead compounds to go into human trials.”
But if Trump’s budget plan is approved, much of the research at Scripps will stop.
“It could literally just devastate the campus,” Laura Niedernhofer, an associate professor. ““It would cripple everything we are doing. And you can’t just pick it back up once the money comes back.”
Trump’s spending plan — running into opposition from Republicans and Democrats alike — would cut nearly 20 percent of the $31.3 billion budget of the nation’s medical research agency that supports research on cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, Zika and other conditions.
“Essentially if we cannot fund our labs and we cannot hire our scientists, our post-docs, our graduate students, our technicians, then we can’t keep our labs open,” Bohn said.
The proposed cuts come at a time when many graduate students are choosing against academic careers, Grill said.
“Many of them are starting to realize that the funding climate is not supportive of the future of science and they don’t see an opportunity for themselves,” he said.
Borrowing a line from Trump, Grill continued: “I want to see America win. Let’s do some awesome science.”
Nelson vowed to fight the cuts. He said he planned to make a speech about Scripps’ plight from the Senate floor.
“It’s a $6 billion cut, which is just inexplicable when in fact you ought to be doing exactly the opposite,” he said.
“We ought to be juicing up the NIH medical research grant but there are other things that are going on that are kind of crazy. For example, a proposal to fund a wall on the Mexican border.”
WHAT THE POST REPORTED
Scripps Research had its biggest year in NIH grants in 2016, bringing $40 million to the county, and its scientists are pursuing alternatives to opiates, which have been driving annual increases in overdose deaths here and nationwide. See the coverage at MyPalmBeachPost.com