NIH Director Dr. Elias Zerhouni Appears Before House Appropriators; Reiterates Importance of Research/Clinical Practice that is Preemptive, Predictive, Preventive and Personalized

NIH Director Dr. Elias Zerhouni Appears before House Appropriators;
Reiterates Importance of Research/Clinical Practice that is
Preemptive, Predictive, Preventive and Personalized

Legislative Update
March 6, 2007

On Tuesday, March 6, National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Dr. Elias Zerhouni testified before the House Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education (LHHS) Appropriations Subcommittee, chaired by Cong. David Obey (D-WI), with Cong. James Walsh (R-NY) serving as Ranking Member. Chairman Obey, who also serves as the House Appropriations Committee Chair, stated that he had asked that witnesses at all Subcommittee hearings this year address the challenges that the country will face ten years out with respect to specific government programs. He also expressed concern that the President’s Fiscal Year (FY) 2007 proposed budget for the NIH, when adjusted for inflation, “went backwards” by reducing NIH’s purchasing power by 12 percent since FY2005, as does the President’s FY2008 budget request, which is $511 million or 1.7 percent below the NIH funding level recently passed in the final, full-year FY2007 Joint Resolution. He stated that the Democratic leadership plans to increase FY2008 NIH funding, noting how advancements in medical research improve the health of all Americans and ensure productivity and global competitiveness.

As in past hearings, Dr. Zerhouni’s verbal testimony described the health challenges over the next ten years, which include: the shift from acute to chronic disease; the aging population; health disparities; emerging/reemerging infectious diseases; emerging non-communicable diseases (e.g., obesity); and biodefense. He then reiterated how NIH’s shift of the paradigm for research/clinical practice to that which is preemptive, predictive, preventive, and personalized will lead to the “era of precision medicine,” with the intent of reducing the burden and cost of disease. Dr. Zerhouni concluded by stressing the importance of investigator-initiated research (noting that the NIH provides support to more than 300,000 scientists) and the scientific peer review process, which is managed by NIH’s Center for Scientific Review (CSR).

Although the National Eye Institute’s (NEI) vision research was not specifically mentioned at the hearing, Dr. Zerhouni’s written testimony acknowledged the impact of the discovery of gene variants associated with the increased risk of age-related macular degeneration, as well as the importance of blood glucose control in reducing the risk of diabetic retinopathy. Both of these major areas of NEI research were also addressed in a written statement submitted by NEI Director Dr. Paul Sieving.

This year, the House LHHS Subcommittee hearing was unique in several aspects, in addition to the new Democratic leadership, including:

  • Attendance by a significant number of new members from both sides of the aisle.
  • A focus on science, especially with Dr. Zerhouni describing in “plain English” how NIH’s goal is to determine the complex, inter-related cellular mechanisms that drive both health and disease.
  • When controversial issues were addressed, such as embryonic stem cell research, Dr. Zerhouni acknowledged that scientists must fundamentally understand the molecular drivers of cell differentiation-and to do that, all avenues of research must be pursued.
  • When budget discussions arose, they were addressed in the context of what NIH could not do and how that would affect the nation’s health over the next ten years.

Dr. Zerhouni is scheduled to appear on March 19 before the Senate LHHS Appropriations Subcommittee, chaired by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), with Ranking Member Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA). NAEVR will submit a written statement/testimony to the files of both the House and Senate hearings requesting FY2008 NIH and NEI funding at $31 billion and $711 million, respectively, reflecting a 6.7 percent increase over the FY2007 Joint Resolution funding level.