Los Angeles County supervisors unanimously backed emergency efforts Tuesday to save an AIDS treatment program that has provided cutting-edge medication to uninsured and largely minority patients for two decades, after the National Institutes of Health announced plans to end millions in funding.
Of 33 such clinical trial sites nationwide, the local clinic is reportedly among at least eight whose research grants are not being renewed.
Federal officials phoned heads of the Rand Schrader HIV Clinic at County-USC Medical Center on Nov. 20, saying they would terminate research funding Dec. 31. On Nov. 21, NIH blocked participants from enrolling in new clinical trials.
"We're all a little shocked," said Hannah Edmondson-Melancon, a nurse who's worked at the clinic for 20 years. County officials, who highlighted the clinic's strong performance, received no formal explanation for the revocation of an estimated $2.5 million in funds.
County health chief Dr. Bruce Chernof called the lack of written justification "very atypical" and "completely unacceptable."
"You've got people's lives at play here," Chernof said.
An NIH official responded with a statement: "At this time, only a small number of HIV/AIDS network clinical site funding decisions have been finalized, and [federal officials] will not be making any public statement about the awards until most, if not all, of the sites receive their funding."
According to county health officials, NIH is grappling with federal budget uncertainty and hopes to consolidate U.S. AIDS research sites in order to conduct clinical trials in developing countries.
A motion by Supervisor Gloria Molina directs the board to send an urgent letter to federal health officials requesting reinstatement of the funding. For some of the county's neediest residents with AIDS, these trials "are the only thing that keeps them alive," Molina said.
The Eastside clinic treats about 3,000 patients a year, roughly 200 of whom participate in clinical trials at any given time. It tests new drugs and drug combinations on patients, 70% to 90% of whom are Latino.
The site was founded in 1986 as one of the 12 original spots conducting research on AIDS patients, and was instrumental in developing treatment for the disease and its complications.
UCLA has a similar clinical trial site, but Rand Schrader patients -- many of whom don't speak English or have cars -- would be unlikely to travel to the Westside, officials told NIH.
Research nurses, pharmacists and administrative workers also stand to lose their jobs if the federal money is pulled.