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The burning question in Washington these days is how to reduce government spending and by how much. We don’t often hear how these cuts could impact funding for critical medical research here in Montana and across the country. Under current law, funding for cancer research, heart disease, diabetes, and many other medical conditions could be slashed dramatically beginning in January.

Concurrently, Congress is making annual budget decisions for the agencies that fund life-saving research at the University of Montana, Montana State University, Rocky Mountain Labs, McLaughlin Research Institute and a growing number of small businesses across our state.

Bioscience work force

Medical research is not only vital to improving health, preventing disease, controlling the cost of health care and protecting against bioterrorist threats, it’s also essential to powering our state’s economy. In 2011, funding from the National Institutes of Health for advanced research brought nearly $40 million into the state, supporting about 1,000 jobs. This funding is crucial to the private sector, which depends on federal investments in basic research to catalyze the development of new cures, innovative treatments, and medical devices.

Two Montana-based companies, LigoCyte Pharmaceuticals, Inc. and Microbion Corporation, are fighting widespread and in some cases life-threatening infectious diseases with funding from the NIH and the Department of Defense. LigoCyte is in human clinical trials for the development of a vaccine to protect against the virus that causes stomach flu, and Microbion has recently completed Phase I human clinical trials for new antibiotics with the capability to treat antibiotic resistant infections associated with civilian and military wounds. These and a wide range of other biotechnology, pharmaceutical, and medical device and bioinformatics companies are active employers in Montana.

Meanwhile at the University of Montana, federal funding through the Department of Defense has supported the development of novel treatments for traumatic brain injury. TBI is a serious health threat facing our armed forces, as well as civilians, and additional funding is needed now more than ever as new cases are reported among troops and veterans alike. Not only have these funds been used to develop novel treatments, but they have also been integral in the formation of another biotech start-up company, Sinapis Pharma, which has created new jobs for Montanans. Montana universities have become economic engines driving innovation and translation of technologies from the lab to where they are needed at the bedside.

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Jobs today, cures tomorrow

Ultimately, it is public-private collaborations that will fuel our nation’s knowledge economy and lay the foundation for new companies and even new industries. Montana universities are spinning out new companies, and are graduating students each year that are at the forefront of research at a national and even global level. If our commitment to medical innovation falters, we will lose out on the promise of leading scientific talent and expertise that is productive here and now, generating discoveries that are fostering the jobs and cures of tomorrow. We could also lose the next generation of American scientists to other nations that are boosting their investments in research and development.

If we want America to be the world leader in science and innovation, we must look to our elected representatives in Congress to work with their congressional compatriots and the White House to ensure that funding for medical research is treated as a top national priority. Our health and our economy are simply too important to fall victim to complacency or shortsightedness in Washington.

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Dave Poulsen is a research associate professor at the University of Montana and the Montana Neuroscience Institute. He collaborated on this guest opinion with Rob Bargatze, chief science officer at LigoCyte Pharmaceuticals in Bozeman; Brett Baker, CEO of Microbion in Bozeman; and Sharon Peterson, executive director of the Montana Bioscience Alliance in Billings.

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