Karen Hitchcock: Medical Research: It’s A Matter Of Life And Death

Aug 22, 2013

Fifty years ago, a tiny newborn struggled for life. Born five and a half weeks premature, the son of then President John F. Kennedy was one of some 25,000 infants who succumbed annually to Respiratory Distress Syndrome, or RDS, the then leading cause of death in premature newborns.

Such infants, it is now known, were born before the development of their lungs was sufficient to sustain life.  A critical substance, known as surfactant, was deficient in their under-developed lungs, a substance which helps maintain the patency of the lung’s air sacs, or alveoli, and hence facilitates effective oxygen exchange in the lung.

As  pointed out in two recent Op-Ed pieces in the New York Times which discuss the tragic death of Patrick Bouvier Kennedy some 39 hours after his premature birth,  such infants today are routinely saved, with excellent prognoses for a healthy life.  However, in 1963, little was known about the cause of the respiratory difficulties which led too frequently to the death of the premature infants, and there were few treatment options available.

As a young scientist working at Tufts Medical School in Boston in the early 1970s, my own research studied the different factors which affected lung development; and, one of our goals was to better understand RDS, the disease which so often caused the death of premature infants like the Kennedy baby. My research team focused on the effects of hormones on lung development and, over the course of several years work, we discovered that thyroid hormone, coupled with steroids, significantly accelerated the development of the lung and the appearance of the critically important substance, surfactant, a discovery which had the potential to treat and/or prevent  the respiratory difficulties experienced by premature newborns. Today, thanks to the research of hundreds of scientists from across the country, surfactant has been isolated and synthesized and is now routinely administered to such premature infants with excellent results.

It is critical to remember that such advances in neonatal care, including the use of artificial or isolated surfactants, have resulted directly from research programs funded by the federal government. Such research programs have been at risk over the last several years as our government has struggled with the challenges to our economy. Sequestration has led to major decreases in federal budget allocations, including those to the National Institutes of Health. In fact, the N.I.H. has lost some 5% of its budget in 2013, leading to major cutbacks in medical research.  Research laboratories around the country have had to downsize their programs and staff, leading to major disruptions of ongoing work in many critical health-related fields. Such laboratories are not easily reconstituted given the very special skills required to carry out these complex programs of research, resulting in major delays and lost productivity.

The medical research community applauded President Obama’s 2014 Budget Plan which includes a 9% overall increase in non-defense Research and Development spending.  For N.I.H., this would represent a reversal of the sequestration cuts as well as a 1.5% increase in funding over the 2012 budget. Despite the extreme differences in priorities and approaches which have so divided the Congress, we need to urge our representatives to speak in one voice regarding the importance of medical research, research which , first and foremost, saves lives, but also reduces the tremendous , and ever-increasing costs of medical care.

The “Patrick Bouvier Kennedys” born today will live healthy and productive lives thanks to federally-funded medical research. Let us make sure that our decisions today about the levels of funding for such critical  research will allow the same story to be written about the victims of cancer, or heart disease, or diabetes, or Parkinson’s Disease, or Alzheimer’s -  about the victims of all the devastating illnesses which currently have no cure. Certainly this is a goal we can all share and help to realize.

Dr. Karen Hitchcock, Special Advisor in the consulting firm, Park Strategies, LLC, was President of the University at Albany, State University of New York, from 1996-2004, after which she went on to lead Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. Dr. Hitchcock has received honorary degrees from Albany Medical College and from her alma mater, St. Lawrence University. She has served  on numerous regional and national committees and task forces dealing with issues in higher education, research and economic development. While at both the University at Albany and Queen’s University, she co-hosted the popular WAMC program, “The Best of our Knowledge”.

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