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NIH Director Zerhouni Discusses NIH Priorities, Conflict of Interest Rules and Stem Cell Research with the Senate LHHS Appropriations Subcommittee

Legislative Update
April 7, 2005

On April 6, the Labor, Health and Human Services and Education (LHHS) Subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee held a hearing on the FY2006 budget for the National Institutes of Health (NIH), featuring NIH Director Dr. Elias Zerhouni. Unlike the House LHHS Subcommittee hearing held on March 9 that included discussion of a wide range of issues, this hearing focused primarily on the impact of the proposed FY2006 budget on NIH's research portfolio, implications of the interim final rules on Conflict of Interest on retention and recruitment and the embryonic stem cell issue.

Subcommittee chair Arlen Specter (R-PA), who has been undergoing treatments for Hodgkins disease, used that recent experience as a context to question Dr. Zerhouni about the adequacy of the President's proposed FY2006 budget, which would increase funding for ongoing programs by $146 million or a 0.5 percent increase over FY2005. In that regard, Sen. Specter acknowledged the successfully passed bipartisan amendment to increase FY2006 NIH funding by $1.5 billion over that in the President's budget, which he and Subcommittee Ranking Member Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) sponsored and was included in the Senate Budget Resolution passed on March 17. He did, however, express his concern that retaining that funding in conference would be difficult.

In responding to questions, Dr. Zerhouni emphasized the dramatic reduction in morbidity and mortality associated with heart disease and cancer, due to blood pressure medications and cancer screening tools derived from research. When asked whether NIH was efficient in its use of funds, he emphasized the importance of research activities to develop treatments to intervene before the onset of disease, which is a hallmark of the NIH Roadmap . He reiterated that the proposed budget provides $96 per American to stem the rising burden of disease, yet the per-person, per-year cost of healthcare is $5,500 and rising, and that ratio is the most important factor in determining efficiency.

Dr. Zerhouni acknowledged that the total number of grants in FY2006 will decrease by 400, although grants for new investigators will increase by 247. Both Sens. Specter and Harkin emphasized the importance of new investigators to the vitality and leadership of NIH's research.

Although full Appropriations Committee chair Thad Cochran (R-MS) joined Sens. Specter and Harkin in praising the NIH, he did ask about Institute-wide health disparities research activities, especially those related to African Americans. Dr. Zerhouni acknowledged that health disparities research is one of five top NIH priorities, along with the aging population, chronic diseases, emerging diseases and bio-defense. (The Alliance for Eye and Vision Research will hold an April 20 Congressional Briefing on the National Eye Institute-sponsored African Americans with Glaucoma Study).

Regarding the Conflict of Interest interim final rules, Dr. Zerhouni acknowledged his request to HHS Commissioner Leavitt for a 90-day stay of the requirement that NIH personnel and spouses divest of health stocks. He noted that this was the reason for the recent resignation of Dr. James Battey, Director of the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communications Disorders (who manages a family trust) and for a delay in acceptance of an offer from NIH by his predecessor. Sen. Harkin expressed concern that the rules will result in NIH losing staff, and Sen. Specter added that the Subcommittee will recommend changes. Dr. Zerhouni stated that, although he has not taken action formally, he feels that the rule's limitation on NIH's relationships with professional societies and trade associations should also be reviewed, adding, "NIH is not a regulatory body, but a scientific organization, and the rule could restrict important scientific interactions."

Both Senators also expressed concern that the Administration's current policy that limits federal funding for research on stem cell lines to those available as of August 2001 would make NIH "increasingly irrelevant," identifying activities in the states (specifically California and Massachusetts) and Europe. Although Dr. Zerhouni did not suggest a change to the Administration's policy and acknowledged that the research raised moral concerns, he noted that the scientific community has expressed interest in pursuing research in other cell lines that may harbor specific genetic defects. Sen. Specter announced that legislation in both the House and Senate to expand the policy could be acted on this session.

On behalf of the eye and vision research community, NAEVR submitted written testimony to the hearing file requesting FY2006 NIH and NEI funding at $30 billion and $711 million, respectively.