Among the many critically important services that have been devastated by the ongoing federal government shutdown, closure of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is one that is likely to have severe long-term effects.
The NIH is the federal government’s primary agency for biomedical and health-related research. It encompasses 27 separate institutes and research centers. The agency both conducts research with its own facilities and staff and funds the efforts of thousands of outside researchers. It has been responsible, directly or through sponsored research, for many important medical discoveries. Among other areas, it is a major force in cancer research.
Collectively, the NIH is the largest medical research organization in the world. The shutdown has forced the furlough of 73 percent of the NIH’s staff, over 13,000 people, with repercussions that extend far beyond the organization itself.
The NIH’s Clinical Center hospital specializes in conducting research into new, experimental treatments which are often the last resort for patients who have not been helped by standard procedures. The center is currently engaged in more than 1,430 studies and nearly 500 clinical trials.
Normally, the hospital admits about 200 new patients a week. Typically about 30 are children, and a third of these have cancer. However, because of the federal shutdown, admissions have been reduced nearly to zero, restricted only to those with immediately life-threatening conditions. For many, such as those with advanced cancer, even a short delay in the commencement of treatment may ultimately mean the difference between life and death.
Among furloughed staff are personnel who maintain critical NIH databases that keep track of admissions to clinical trials and patient status. Due to the shutdown, the NIH is also unable to accept new research grant applications. Meetings, phone conferences, and indeed any communication between NIH staff and outside researchers engaged in ongoing studies have been suspended. Access to NIH databases, on which many researchers rely to obtain information for their studies, is cut off as well.
Critically important medical research conducted by the NIH will be increasingly impaired the longer the shutdown lasts. Some may be totally ruined. Just one of the classes of activity that will be affected is research on diseases such as diabetes, cancer and Alzheimer’s research using genetically engineered rodents (currently totaling about 1.4 million).
These animals, the product of careful breeding to carry specific genetic characteristics, are kept under tightly controlled conditions that must be constantly monitored and maintained. Only skeleton crews of technicians are currently allowed access.
Without adequate staff to support these colonies, large numbers may have to be euthanized. Thousands of dollars will then be spent to replace them when operations resume. That is in addition to the cost in time and money lost due to experiments that have to be restarted.
Similar factors will impact research employing cell cultures that also require constant attention.
NIH employees report that they will soon run out of supplies needed simply to keep animals alive and experiments on hold. During the shutdown no new orders can be placed. As a result, even once the shutdown ends the lack of supplies on hand will cause severe difficulties.