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Squeeze on Science

By Harold Varmus

Harold Varmus
Harold Varmus
In the latter weeks of this year's presidential race, both candidates voiced their support of efforts to double the budget of the National Institutes of Health. This is an encouraging sign that the current bipartisan enthusiasm for medical research will continue in the next administration. But it also offers an opportunity to make an important point about the kinds of science required to achieve breakthroughs against disease.

The NIH does a magnificent job, but it does not hold all the keys to success. The work of several science agencies is required for advances in medical sciences, and the health of some of those agencies is suffering.

For the coming fiscal year, Congress has again-magnanimously and appropriately-slated the NIH for a major increase, its third consecutive 15 percent increase. By these actions, Congress has shown that it is determined to combat the scourges of our time, including heart disease, cancer, diabetes, AIDS and Alzheimer's disease.

But Congress is not addressing with sufficient vigor the compelling needs of the other science agencies, especially the National Science Foundation and the Office of Science at the Department of Energy. This disparity in treatment undermines the balance of the sciences that is essential to progress in all spheres, including medicine.

I first observed the interdependence of the sciences as a boy when my father-a general practitioner with an office connected to our house-showed me an X-ray. I marveled at a technology that could reveal the bones of his patients or the guts of our pets. And I learned that it was something that doctors, no matter how expert with a stethoscope or suture, wouldn't have been likely to develop on their own.

Of course, the X-ray is routine now. Medical science can visualize the inner workings of the body at far higher resolution with techniques that sound dazzlingly sophisticated: ultrasound, positron-emission tomography and computer-assisted tomography. These techniques are the workhorses of medical diagnostics. And not a single one of them could have been developed without the contributions of scientists, such as mathematicians, physicists and chemists supported by the agencies currently at risk.

Effective medicines are among the most prominent products of medical research, and drug development also relies heavily on contributions from a variety of sciences. The traditional method of random prospecting for a few promising chemicals has been supplemented and even superseded by more rational methods based on molecular structures, computer-based images and chemical theory. Synthesis of promising compounds is guided by new chemical methods that can generate either pure preparations of a single molecule or collections of literally millions of subtle variants. To exploit these new possibilities fully, we need strength in many disciplines, not just pharmacology.

Medical advances may seem like wizardry. But pull back the curtain, and sitting at the lever is a high-energy physicist, a combinational chemist or an engineer. Magnetic resonance imaging is an excellent example. Perhaps the last century's greatest advance in diagnosis, MRI is the product of atomic, nuclear and high-energy physics, quantum chemistry, computer science, cryogenics, solid state physics and applied medicine.

In other words, the various sciences together constitute the vanguard of medical research. And it's time for Congress to treat them that way. Sens. Christopher Bond (R-Mo.) and Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) have just proposed to double the budget of the National Science Foundation over five years. This admirable effort should be vigorously supported and extended to include the Department of Energy's Office of Science, which funds half of all research in the physical sciences and maintains the national laboratories that are central to biomedicine.

Scientists can wage an effective war on disease only if we-as a nation and as a scientific community-harness the energies of many disciplines, not just biology and medicine. The allies must include mathematicians, physicists, engineers and computer and behavioral scientists. I made this case repeatedly during my tenure as director of NIH, and the NIH has made significant efforts to boost its support of these areas. But in the long run, it is essential to provide adequate budgets for the agencies that traditionally fund such work and train its practitioners. Moreover, this will encourage the interagency collaboration that fuels interdisciplinary science. Only in this way will medical research be optimally poised to continue its dazzling progress.

Harold Varmus is president of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and a former director of the National Institutes of Health. He received the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1989. The above article originally appeared in The Washington Post, October 4, 2000. Reprinted with permission.

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