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Stanford researchers join protest against U.S. germ research policy

BY DAWN LEVY

Ten Stanford researchers are among more than 700 signatories of an open letter to National Institutes of Health Director Elias Zerhouni criticizing the unintended consequences of the 2001-02 decision by the NIH National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases to "prioritize research of high biodefense but low public-health significance." The letter, sent to Zerhouni on Monday, has been published online in Science magazine (http://www.sciencemag.org/feature/misc/microbio/).

The Stanford signatories include Arthur Kornberg, a Nobel Prize winner, and Charles Yanofsky, who will receive the National Medal of Science from President Bush this month, as well as Allan Campbell, Martha Cyert, Stanley Falkow, Sharon Long, Julie Parsonnet, David Relman, Lucy Shapiro and Lucy S. Tompkins.

"The diversion of research funds from projects of high public-health importance to projects of high biodefense but low public-health importance represents a misdirection of NIH priorities and a crisis for NIH-supported microbial research," asserted the signatories. "The diversion of research funds comes at a time when research on non-biodefense-related microbial physiology, genetics and pathogenesis is poised for significant breakthroughs, made possible by the application of genomics, proteomics and systems-biology methods."

Comparing grant periods 1996-2000 and 2001-2005, the letter cited a 1,500 percent increase in the number of grants awarded for work on prioritized bioweapons agents—tularemia, anthrax, plague, glanders, melioidosis and brucellosis—and a 41 percent decrease in grants to study non-biodefense-related model organisms and a 27 percent decrease in grants to study non-biodefense-related pathogenic organisms. This funding trend may drive research innovation outside the United States to the detriment of U.S. national interests, the scientists suggested.

"Support for bioterrorism research should not come at the expense of existing research," Yanofsky said in an e-mail interview. "Yes, it is an area that is in need of interest and support. But it should be considered an additional objective and not one that, by being supported, will sacrifice progress by well-established investigators who are contributing to our overall understanding that is benefiting mankind in medical as well as many other areas."

Margaret Kosal, a science fellow at Stanford's Center for International Security and Cooperation, was not a signatory but pointed out in an e-mail interview that investment in fundamental research may be more likely to provide breakthroughs and subsequent biodefense benefits. "One of the rationales for Project BioShield and other biodefense initiatives that inject large amounts of federal funding into private pharmaceutical and biotech companies is the suggestion that there may be secondary benefits for fighting other infectious disease and benefits to public health. Perhaps the arrow is in the wrong direction."