DAVID GREENE, HOST:
The House of Representatives considers a bill today that could give a big cash infusion to medical research, an area that has been suffering in recent years. The bill could also change the government's process for approving drugs in a way that makes some researchers nervous. NPR's Richard Harris has the story.
RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: Many scientists are cheering on this bill. The American Association of Medical Colleges is part of a coalition of patient groups, scientific societies and research institutions that has been trying to find some way to invigorate funding for medical research. Dave Moore at the association says the bill in Congress provides a promising path forward.
DAVE MOORE: We're very excited about the prospects for the 21st Century Cures Act.
HARRIS: It gets around painful limits on federal spending by setting aside nearly $2 billion a year specifically to boost medical research. Research funding has been suffering for more than a decade.
MOORE: Back in 2003, NIH could fund about 1 out of every 3 grant applications it received. Now it funds about 1 out of every 6.
HARRIS: That funding crunch means a lot of good ideas languish, as do the careers of promising young scientists. Moore says a cash infusion would help.
MOORE: Will it get NIH back to a position where it can fund 1 out of 3 grants? No. But it certainly reverses this decade-long trend of the budget not keeping pace with inflation.
HARRIS: That promise of new funding is helping attract Democrats to vote for a bill that they might otherwise be reluctant to support, says Jerry Avorn at the Harvard Medical School.
JERRY AVORN: What it's said to be about and what it is about I'm afraid are not quite identical.
HARRIS: Funding more research is great, he says. And the stated purpose of the bill is to get drugs through the Food and Drug Administration's approval process quicker so new medicines become available sooner.
AVORN: That sounds pretty good. But in fact, it is loaded with a lot of provisions that were heavily influenced by pharmaceutical and biotech and medical device lobbyists that really do some pretty worrisome things.
HARRIS: Under this bill, he says, it would be easier to approve a drug based on blood tests rather than the more arduous and expensive tests that show a drug actually improves a person's health.
AVORN: We know that we can be led astray by drugs that make lab tests look better but may not actually help patients.
HARRIS: Indeed, there's a long-running scientific debate about the benefits and risks of relying on this kind of information. Jeff Allen, executive director of an advocacy group called Friends of Cancer Research, argues the bill doesn't lower the standards for drug approval. Instead, he says, it will give drug developers a new tool that can help them predict whether a drug is likely to be safe and effective.
JEFF ALLEN: And if we can do that earlier, then it will prevent people from getting a drug that might be harmful. And we'll actually conserve resources and allow both researchers and the FDA to focus on those applications that will be most promising.
HARRIS: So his group, which gets some drug industry funding, is in favor of the bill. Jerry Avorn counters that if Congress really wants to speed the search for cures, it should simply boost funding for science in universities and other research institutions.
AVORN: That's where innovation comes from, not by making it easier once those innovations have been turned into a drug for the company that owns the drug to not have to show that they work in patients.
HARRIS: The House bill is far from the last word on this subject. The Senate is starting to craft its own very different approach to this problem. And it's not clear what a compromise might look like. Richard Harris, NPR News.
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