Drastic cuts to NIH budget could translate to less innovation and fewer patents, study argues

From research on stem cells and DNA sequencing to experiments with fruit flies and surveys of human behavior, projects funded by the National Institutes of Health aim to make Americans healthier. A new analysis finds that NIH-funded research also fuels the kinds of innovations that drive the U.S. economy.

Between 1990 and 2012, close to 1 in 10 projects made possible by an NIH grant resulted in a patent, usually for a university or a hospital.

The indirect effects were far greater: Close to 1 in 3 NIH research grants generated work that was cited in applications for commercial patents.

Over roughly two decades, 81,462 patents filed by companies and individuals cited at least one NIH-sponsored research project in their applications. Some 1,351 of those patents were for drugs that would go on to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

The study, published Thursday in the journal Science, undergirds a point repeated frequently since the Trump administration unveiled a budget plan that proposed cutting the NIH budget by 20% in 2018: that research funded by taxpayer dollars not only improves lives and forestalls death, it creates jobs — which the president has long asserted is his highest priority.

It is an argument often made in support of such scientific undertakings as space exploration, and sometimes for defense spending. But when it comes to biomedical research, public spending is frequently dismissed as a way to sustain university professors or seek esoteric answers to the mysteries of life.

It shouldn’t be, said Pierre Azoulay, a professor of technological innovation at MIT and coauthor of the new analysis.

“NIH public funding expenditures have large effects on the patenting output of the private sector,” Azoulay said. “These results should give a lot of pause to those who think these cuts are going to have no effect.”

Ashley J. Stevens, a biotechnology researcher who is president of Focus IP Group in Winchester, Mass., said the new study “clearly ... supports the premise that increased investment in the NIH leads directly to improved public health.”

It also “makes President Trump’s proposal to cut the NIH budget by $1.6 billion this year and $6 billion next year to fund a border wall and increased military spending incompatible with his ‘America first’ objectives,” added Stevens, who was not involved in the study.

More than 80% of the NIH budget is parceled out to researchers across the country and around the world. Each year, NIH’s 21 institutes award close to 50,000 competitive grants to investigators at more than 2,500 universities, independent labs and private companies. The University of California, for instance, received nearly $1.9 billion in total NIH funding last year.

Led by Harvard Business School entrepreneurship professor Danielle Li, the new research scoured 1,310,700 patent applications submitted between 1980 and 2012 in the “life sciences,” a category that includes drugs, medical devices and related technologies. In the footnotes, citations and supporting data, the study authors looked for references to any of the 365,380 grants the NIH funded between 1980 and 2007, as well as to research articles generated by those grants.

To capture the unappreciated “indirect spillovers of knowledge” that result from NIH-funded work, the authors focused especially on 232,276 private-sector patents in the life sciences.

Li, Azoulay and Bhaven Sampat, a health policy professor at Columbia University, found 17,093 patents that were assigned to universities and public-sector institutions. These patents are certainly valuable — they can spur further research, support professors and graduate students and boost endowments.

But private-sector patents may reverberate more widely through the economy, generating capital, manufacturing jobs and profits. And their intellectual debt to publicly funded research is rarely counted or acknowledged outside the fine print of these patent applications.

In all, 112,408 NIH-funded research grants — 31% of the total disbursed between 1990 and 2007 — produced research that was cited by 81,462 private-sector patents, the team found.

“If you thought this was just ivory tower stuff that has no relevance, I think we contradict that,” Azoulay said.

The findings demonstrate that the broad economic effects of NIH budget cuts would not necessarily be felt immediately, since it could take years for a research paper written by NIH-funded investigators to find its way into a patent application.

“These effects are going to be delayed,” Azoulay said. ”The slowdown resulting from a cut in the NIH budget now is for President Ivanka Trump or President Chelsea Clinton to worry about.”

But the study also makes clear that publicly funded research lays the groundwork for important innovations and discoveries that companies and individuals seek to patent.

Biomedical research is perhaps the most complex type of research there is, Azoulay added: “These are fundamentally harder problems. There are a lot of blind alleys, experimentation that leads to nothing.”

Intriguingly, the new research found that there was little difference in the economic impact of grants for “basic” science and “applied” science. Both types of grants were equally likely to be cited in patent applications if they explored fundamental dynamics of biology (such as cellular processes) or if they studied specific disease states in humans.

That distinction is important, because researchers and scientific leaders have quarreled for years over how NIH’s limited budgets should be apportioned.

Scientists who study very basic biological processes, or who work with simple organisms like yeast, earthworms or fruit flies, often argue that their contributions are most valuable because they shed light on how all life — including human life — works.

Scientists whose research is more “applied,” including clinical trials and epidemiological studies, believe their work contributes more directly to improving human health.

The new study suggests that both categories contribute to commercial innovation.

Stevens called this finding “remarkable.”

Azoulay acknowledged that neither the progress of life sciences research nor its contribution to the economy is neat or easy to quantify.

“The sausage factory doesn’t look up-close very appetizing,” he said. “But in the sweep of history, this system delivers things.”

Not all patents become lucrative or open new paths to treatments, Azoulay said. But with time and continued funding, they do lead to breakthroughs.

One of the best examples is the cancer drug Gleevec, which emerged from NIH-funded work on basic cellular function. Since its approval in 2001 as a treatment for chronic myeloid leukemia, Gleevec has turned that once-deadly cancer into a disease that most survive. Many call it a “miracle” drug.

“One Gleevec can justify a lot of failures,” Azoulay said.

melissa.healy@latimes.com

@LATMelissaHealy

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