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Health Research At Risk From Sequestered Cuts

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Laura Gottschalk, graduate student at Johns Hopkins University, prepares bacteria cultures for research into the genetic mutations associated with cystic fibrosis.
Rebecca Blatt
Laura Gottschalk, graduate student at Johns Hopkins University, prepares bacteria cultures for research into the genetic mutations associated with cystic fibrosis.

The National Institutes of Health could face $2.5 billion in funding cuts in January if Congress does not avert across-the-board federal spending cuts set to go into effect. Health care providers and researchers in the D.C. area are bracing for losses.

Laura Gottschalk, a graduate student in Johns Hopkins University's cellular molecular medicine program, wields a test tube in one hand and what looks like an giant eye dropper in the other.

"I'm about to start bacteria cultures," says Gottschalk a she works in her Baltimore lab. "We study CF, so I'm looking at different mutants in cystic fibrosis."

Gottschalk explains that with a better understanding of the genetic mutations, scientists could develop better treatments for cystic fibrosis.

"Figure out, OK, which mutation does what and then how can we specifically treat that mutation for that specific person," explains Gottschalk.

But her research at Hopkins is funded, in part, by the NIH, and that funding is at risk if the "sequestered" cuts happen in January. Hopkins receives more NIH funding than any other institution. Dr. Landon King, vice dean for research at the school, says that money goes to everything from basic science research to studies about safety in clinical settings.

"The largest category of support for our research efforts is funding from the National Institutes of Health," says Dr. King. "So it is absolutely at the heart of everything we are able to do here."

Budget cuts could mean job losses, reductions in training and research setbacks, he says. 

"Unfortunately, research does not lend itself to episodes of activity," says Dr. King. "It's really a longitude experience, and it doesn't work well to stop and start."

In the lab, Gottschalk says that could affect her research and her career prospects.

"That part is a little scary too, because less money means less money available to hire new graduates," says Gottschalk.

Some lawmakers on Capitol Hill are working on a compromise to avert or delay at least some cuts, but with ongoing pressure to reduce the federal deficit, virtually everything is on the table, and scientists are watching closely.

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