Medical researchers across Florida say they fear a state bureaucratic decision will strip them of up to $10 million in grants and prematurely shut down ongoing studies involving thousands of patients.
The Department of Health has told 18 university and institute scientists that a state rule on grants forbids the state from funding the final two years of five-year grants the researchers received in 2010. Officials in June told the scientists they can apply for new grants to finish their studies, but researchers and their supporters said they don't know how many of the 21 projects – if any – would be funded.
Researchers said the DOH decision could also shut off millions of dollars in federal and private grants that hinge on the state money being available. Without the money, they said, they would have to cancel studies in midstream and discharge their study patients.
Cancer specialist Alan Fields at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville said he stands to lose $1 million of state grant money and has suspended two studies to test a promising drug treatment on 27 people with advanced lung tumors.
“The potential is these patients would respond to this therapy and it would extend their lives. Now that can’t happen at this time,” Fields said. “These are real people we’re talking about. The state should honor the commitments and that is not being done here.”
Will projects die?
The 21 grants support research into tobacco-related illnesses, including cancer, heart disease and stroke. The researchers, their institutions and major disease associations are lobbying state Surgeon General Dr. John Armstrong, who heads the health department, to save the projects. A letter of protest was signed by 18 researchers from Moffitt Cancer Center, University of Miami, University of South Florida, University of Florida, Florida International, and Mayo Clinic Florida.
“Are they going to let these projects die? They have left the door open,” said Brenda Olsen, chief operating officer at the American Lung Association in Florida. “We have concern about stopping research in the middle of projects. Often you end up wasting your initial investment [because] you don’t get any results.”
Supporters of the grants said they believe the state is cutting the money in order to pay for a project from Gov. Rick Scott to boost the state’s large cancer centers: Moffitt in Tampa, Sylvester in Miami and University of Florida/Shands in Gainesville. Scott wants to help them attract patients who now go to big-name cancer institutions such as M.D. Anderson in Houston.
“[Giving the money to] cancer centers doesn’t seem like the best use of precious resources when you have research projects that are making progress,” said James Mosteller, government relations director at the American Heart Association. “We’re a little concerned because there is so much focus on cancer centers from the governor’s office and the department. We’re just a little concerned [heart disease] is going to be left behind.”
Health department spokeswoman Molly Koon Kellogg said the state supports medical research as strongly as ever and denied that money is being diverted from research to the cancer centers. But in her written response, Kellogg stopped short of saying the 21 projects would receive full funding.
DOH’s agreements with researchers make clear that support is contingent on the availability of funds, Kellogg wrote. “The department is working to find solutions as part of an ongoing commitment to Florida's biomedical research community.”
Advisory Council Approved Research
According to state records, the 21 five-year grants worth about $25 million were awarded to studies such as why breast and colon cancer are more aggressive in minority populations, ways to repair brain cells in stroke patients, and a new therapy for the eye disease macular degeneration.
The projects were recommended by the state Biomedical Research Advisory Council – a panel of university and research experts – and had scored highest in rankings by independent reviewers. The money came from two state research programs that receive tobacco taxes, one called Bankhead-Coley and another named for James and Esther King.
Fields at Mayo said he received $2.4 million to study a cancer stem cells he identified that fuel the growth and spread of tumors, and that can survive traditional treatment. He was about to start testing on patients a two-drug therapy that shows promise in disabling genes that produce the stem cells.
Then last year, Gov. Scott announced the project to give more money to the cancer centers. This year, the Legislature passed a bill allocating an estimated $10 million of research money to Scott’s project.
In spring, the health department told the 18 scientists the state had erred in 2010 and had the authority to give grants for only three years, meaning the final two years were not assured. The researchers in May signed a letter imploring the state not to cut their grants in order to fund the cancer centers.
“Basically, the money will be used the way the cancer center wants to use it instead of for projects by top researchers that have been peer-reviewed and judged to be worthy,” said one of the researchers who stand to lose $500,000 and who spoke on condition of anonymity in fear of further jeopardizing the grant.
In response, the department announced a competition for two-year grants to be awarded Sept. 30. Robert Hood, the department’s administrator of public health research, emailed the researchers June 21 inviting them to apply, saying: “We look forward to working with you towards completion of your project.”
Kellogg could not say how much money would go to the 21 incomplete projects or how many would be funded. The state has $17 million for biomedical research for the year, but it must also cover two other grant competitions, one that began last fall and another that begins in November, she said.
Florida Rep. Marti Coley, R-Marianna, whose late husband David was a cancer victim and a namesake of the Bankhead-Coley fund, said she immediately phoned Armstrong when she heard about the grant controversy. She urged the state to fund the individual projects as well as the cancer centers.
“One should not replace the other. You really need to have both,” Coley said. “I’m confident the Surgeon General is working to strike the right balance.”