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Federal Funding Initiative Could Bolster University’s Genomics Research

By Karl M. Aspelund and Meg P. Bernhard, Crimson Staff Writers

Harvard genomics researchers could see increased funding for their work should Congress approve a White House proposal to allocate millions more dollars to the research of medical treatments personalized to a patient’s genetic information.

Funding for the research would come from the National Institutes of Health, the University's largest federal sponsor for research, which accounts for about half of Harvard’s federal sponsorship.

Specifics for the proposal—first announced during President Obama’s State of the Union address last week—will not be made public until the release of Obama’s 2016 budget in early February. Still, Harvard professors said that a growing group of the University’s researchers who are focused on applying troves of genetic data to clinical strategies would especially benefit from the increase in funds.

Despite years of progress in the field of genomics, federal funding for related research has been scarce, according to Medical School associate professor Heidi L. Rehm.

“The federal government has been supportive of genomics-based healthcare, but with few dollars,” Rehm said. “So this is encouraging.”

But although new funding from the NIH would benefit genomics research, Medical School associate professor Patrick T. Ellinor said that small grants from other sponsors ensure that projects are sufficiently funded.

“For all medical researchers, NIH is the backbone for funding, but it is not something you can survive on,” Ellinor said.

Some researchers also pointed to the concern that an NIH initiative for large-scale genomics research could restrict opportunities for smaller grants, a common refrain after the announcement of large health initiatives but more acute in this case because genomic research studies tend to be larger and more expensive.

In the long term, though, big initiatives often lead to more small grants as “leaps in understanding are made,” said former University Provost Steven E. Hyman, a stem cell and regenerative biology professor.

Despite talk of how funding might affect research at Harvard, it is still unclear how the new NIH proposal would be funded.

The program could be financed through new funds, but might also be funded by redistributing money away from existing NIH programs in order to sponsor research on genetically-tailored medical treatments, said Kevin Casey, associate vice president for Public Affairs and Communications.

“It will be important to understand how those funds are available,” Casey said. “[Will it come] at the expense at other programs in NIH and affect other peoples’ priorities?”

The proposal comes nearly two years after the federal government enacted broad budget cuts collectively known as sequestration, which cut research funding for universities across the nation. Federal funding for Harvard research fell by five percent to $608 million in the University’s fiscal year 2014, the first full Harvard fiscal year after the sequester was put into place.

NIH funding decreased 7 percent from fiscal year 2013, and the institution is experiencing “historical lows in terms of the amount of grants it can fund,” only sponsoring about 17 percent of all grants it receives, according to Casey.

—Staff writer Karl M. Aspelund can be reached at karl.aspelund@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @kma_crimson.

—Staff writer Meg P. Bernhard can be reached at meg.bernhard@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @Meg_Bernhard.

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