Economic crisis could slow UA research into drugs, therapies

October 16, 2008

By hammersmith

[Source: ALAN FISCHER, Tucson Citizen] – The continuing economic crisis could see the development of lifesaving drugs and therapies delayed.

Biotech researchers, already stung by funding cutbacks, fear the $700 billion bailout will further crimp their efforts to bring new drugs to market.

While it is too early to gauge exactly what the most recent financial upheavals will mean, researchers say they are already hurting.

“The bulk of research dollars at the University of Arizona come from the federal government,” said Vicki Chandler, director of UA’s BIO5 Institute. “I think we’re in for a slowing of research.”

Federal budget problems, fueled by the bailout, hurricane relief and the war in Iraq, mean less money for bioscience efforts, Chandler said.

The timing is poor.

“We’ve collected massive amounts of data were poised to really take advantage of,” she said. “To do that, it takes money, people and facilities.”

Local researchers are struggling, she said.

Three to four years ago, 20 percent to 25 percent of biotech grant requests made to the National Institutes of Health were funded. That has dropped to a funding success rate between 8 and 10 percent, Chandler said.

The National Science Foundation, another leading federal provider of science research funding, has seen a similar decline, she said.

“That’s already hit UA in a big way,” said Elaine Jacobson, UA professor of pharmacology and co-founder of Niadyne Inc., which develops and markets niacin-based products and therapeutics.

Some researchers have not received funding approval and have reduced their staffs and scientific efforts, she said.

The $700 billion bailout, which some analysts believe will cost closer to $2 trillion, will make things worse for researchers working to bring drugs to market.

“You just can’t create grant money out of thin air, and there is a cash shortage,” Jacobson said. “That’s really going to hurt.”

Niadyne next week will begin seeking private funding to move new therapeutics toward federal approval for use by humans.

A year ago, it would have been much easier to secure funding, Jacobson said. But with the Dow Jones industrial average dropping from the 12,000s to the 9,000s since then, all bets are off.

Venture funds will do fewer investments and reserve more cash per investment for capital-intensive biotech projects, said Shaun A. Kirkpatrick, president and CEO of Research Corporation Technologies, a Tucson-based venture capital operation.

He sees a decrease in funding available for life sciences projects, and believes small funds may leave the biotech arena because of the large amount of money needed.

On the bright side, investors hammered by the stock market may see biotech firms as good opportunities and invest, Chandler said.

And foreign investors may be drawn to biotech because of the weakness of the dollar, she said.

Drug development takes many years, and a pipeline of near-ready new products exists for the short term, she said.

But if the economic problems continue for a long time, that pipeline could be reduced to a trickle.