Stepping up to the plate for MS research.The approval of a new round of research grants is an exciting time: Will one of these grants hold the key to unraveling the mysteries of MS? But for each one of the men and women who applies to us for funding, it's a tense and uncertain time. If a grant proposal is rejected--or if it is approved and cannot be funded--it could signal the end of a line of research, or worse, a career.
Building laboratory research
When we look at the budget section of any grant, it's easy to see what is at stake for the investigator who is applying. From Petri dishes to laboratory technicians, research grants are the key to a scientist establishing and maintaining his or her own laboratory.
People--A grant usually pays at least a portion of the salaries of all personnel involved in the research project, from technicians and young postdoctoral fellows to research faculty members. Fellows, for example, are paid between $40,000 and $51,000, depending on years of experience. The grant also may cover the cost of health insurance and retirement plans. If a grant is not funded, many of these people are out of a job.
Equipment/supplies--As technology advances, so does its price. The process of analyzing thousands of proteins at once with a mass spectrometer is thrilling, but the equipment can cost as much as $750,000. Maintaining a colony of mice for biomedical research--which includes feeding, housing and cleaning--can cost as much as $50,000. MS genetics research is speeding along--but not for free! Genotyping, the process of examining the genetic make-up of a person by studying DNA samples taken from the individual's blood or cheek cells, can cost up to $10 million for a major study such as the ones that are necessary to nail down the MS genes.
Patient costs--We strive to bring MS drugs from the laboratory to the clinic, where clinical trials incur some of the biggest bills in MS research--often in the millions of dollars. Patient costs include blood tests, x-rays, and other imaging scans (one MRI can cost on the order of $1,000), and trials usually require more salaries for staff to coordinate the study.
Other costs--Research grants also cover what are called "indirect costs." These are costs that are not just for that specific project, but are incurred by the researcher's institution. Indirect costs may include telephone, heat, light, and air conditioning, or secretarial salaries. The Society pays an additional 10% on top of a grant's direct costs to help cover indirect costs--but indirects actually cost the institution much more. NIH grants, for example, generally pay about 60% above the cost of the actual grant for indirect costs.
Our research grant programs range from $44,000--for a pilot project that tests a new innovative idea--to $5.6 million, to fund four international teams of top scientists working on therapeutic strategies to repair nerve damage in MS through the Promise: 2010 initiative. If we don't provide these funds, equipment can't be purchased, animal models can't be tested, patients can't be recruited for clinical trials, and salaries can't be paid. A researcher might have to abandon his or her ideas, change fields so that he/she can study other disease areas where funding is available, or even look for a livelihood outside of the laboratory.
Now more than ever
The role of the National MS Society in funding MS research is more crucial than ever. Since 2003, the National Institutes of Health budget has not kept up with inflation and has lost ground. According to the NIH, investment in MS-related research in FY 2006 was $110 million. In FY 2007 and 2008, that figure dropped to $98 million. They expect the investment in MS to drop by another $1 million in 2009.
The effects of these funding decreases are disastrous. "In competition for limited resources, scientists at every point along the academic research pipeline are feeling the destructive effects," according to a statement from concerned universities and research institutions published in March 2008, and entitled "A Broken Pipeline?" "The system is backlogged with proposals and too few are being funded--impeding scientific progress."
This is the real tragedy of unfunded research. When the money is tight, researchers become more conservative, taking fewer risks on applications that might be rejected because of bold and possibly expensive visions.
Now more than ever, we need to maintain our stance as a driving force of MS research, relentlessly pursuing prevention, treatment and cure. We need to step up to the plate and fund the novel, innovative ideas that just might be the key to MS, as well as the international collaborations that are so necessary to speed research along. So many people depend on us to be this force--the men, women and children who have MS--and the researchers themselves, the men and women who are leading the way to the cure.
Dr. John Richert is executive vice president for the Society's Research & Clinical Programs.