When Nobel Laureate Andrew Schally arrived in South Florida six years ago, he was greeted with great fanfare and named a distinguished professor of pathology at the University of Miami medical school. Now he says his work is one of the many casualties of the school’s budget slashing.Schally says UM told him several weeks ago that his annual funding of $150,000 for research would end May 31, part of widespread cuts in the medical school that could eliminate up to 800 jobs this month and trigger major reductions in research.
“I was shocked… We developed so many drugs for the university,” Schally says. “They are killing the goose that laid the golden egg.”
Medical school leaders insisted Friday that they remain strong supporters of Schally, even as the university imposes the cuts. The Miller School of Medicine has lost $18 million so far this fiscal year, sees dire financial problems ahead and already terminated 180 temporary employees in March before Tuesday’s announcement that it is laying off up to 800 full-time employees this month.
President Donna Shalala said last week that, as a result of the cuts, the medical school would stop supporting much “unfunded” research — work that isn’t backed by outside grants from organizations such as the National Institutes of Health.
Research professionals maintain that many major breakthroughs in cancer, diabetes and other medical fields start small, with funding provided by universities, to build the data needed to compete for large NIH grants. They fear that research cutbacks now at UM could set back important scientific work for many years.
“The implications are huge,” said Joseph Whittaker, immediate past president of Sigma Xi, the national scientific research society. “There is a big ripple effect” because research projects, once stopped, take a long time to ramp up again even after funding is restored, and the cutbacks could hurt efforts to build the area into a biomedical research center.
Last week, when Shalala was asked if UM would lose some valuable research because of the cuts, she replied, “We might.” But, she added, the school’s mission remained focused on maintaining top quality research while “attracting and maintaining world-class people.”
Shalala said UM faces the same problems as many other higher education institutions: Government funding for research, mostly through the NIH, remains roughly flat but many more researchers are applying for the grants, at least partly because researchers who started projects with stimulus funds in 2010 and 2011 are now seeking to continue with regular NIH funding.
Ann Bonham, chief scientific officer of the Association of American Medical Colleges, said only about 15 percent of applicants are getting NIH grants.
“The young scientists are the ones at greatest risk,” said Pascal Goldschmidt, dean of UM’s medical school, noting that the average age for scientists getting their first NIH grants used to be 28 to 30. Now they average about 35.
Many young scientists get their start with university funding, and older scientists often keep their work going between NIH grants with “bridge grants” from universities. These are the grants UM is drastically reducing.
“We are not eliminating every unfunded researcher,” Shalala said. “In some cases, UM funded researchers are going to absorb them on their funded budgets.”
But Shalala also said, “If you don’t have grants at the university, you cannot expect the university to fund you for every year to come. We can do a certain amount of that with younger people, as they’re starting out, but no major research university … is carrying people for very long periods of time. We just can’t. We can’t afford to do that.”
Schally, the Nobel laureate who was one of those who got the bad news, moved to Miami in late 2005 after Hurricane Katrina knocked out his lab in New Orleans. His current lab is at the Miami Veterans Affairs Medical Center, where he leads 17 researchers. At age 85, he said he continues to get work at 6:30 a.m.: “I don’t rest on old glory.”
He won his Nobel in 1977 for research that led to new drugs for prostate cancer. Since he arrived in Miami, he’s continued to make news, including finding a molecule linked to rapid growth of tumors.
Schally said UM gets the vast majority of any commercial benefit from his work. “We developed so many drugs. UM stands to collect millions, even billions.”
He said UM informed him he was losing the grant, which he was using to develop chemical hormonal treatments for cancer. “This was not a friendly way to do it,” he said of the notification. He said he has asked for clarification but hasn’t received any.He will likely to have to lay off two researchers next month, he said.
On Friday, the medical school said in a statement that it had made “an extraordinary investment” in Schally’s research — giving him $3.8 million over the past four years with plans for another $993,119 for the fiscal year starting next month — but said it had not yet made any money from his research.
“The Miller School has great confidence in the scientific value of Dr. Schally’s work, and hopes that one day the discoveries he has made at UM will lead to effective treatments for patients, as well as patents that may benefit the university,” the statement said. “At this time, Dr. Schally’s discoveries have not led to any revenue for UM.”
Schally and his clinical director, former UM surgeon Norman Block, said they were astounded by UM’s numbers, speculating that the figures might include endowment money from Block, which he had been designating for Schally’s lab. “Let’s be polite and say the numbers are not accurate,” Block said.
Block said that Schally’s discoveries haven’t “ripened” yet, but they said conservative estimates indicate they could bring $1.3 billion to UM when they came to market.
They were particularly surprised to hear that they would be getting almost $1 million starting in June. “Maybe in confederate dollars,” Block said.
At the opposite end of the research spectrum from a Nobel laureate is Michael Ricciardi, 23, who was earning $25,000 a year in a UM lab that was studying autoimmune functions, fundamental research that could lead to breakthroughs in diabetes, arthritis and other diseases. The work had been funded by an NIH grant, but it had ended. Professors, who had applied for a new grant, needed bridge funds from UM to keep their work going.
That stopped Tuesday, when Ricciardi said he and 10 others out of the 33 in the lab were told to clear out their desks and leave immediately. Ricciardi said he still returned to the lab to maintain a mouse colony because the work on genetics would be lost otherwise.
“I was passionate about what I did,” Ricciardi said, adding that he sometimes worked until 3 a.m. to treat cell cultures that needed constant tending.
Bonham, the AAMC chief science officer, said she fears the national research picture may be harmed long-term by the grant situation. “Some of our best and brightest minds will not choose to go into research. Innovation comes from people. If we begin to lose that pipeline, we are going to lose our global competitiveness.”
While the research problems may seem abstract to the public, Bonham said they shouldn’t be: With soaring rates of obesity in U.S., corresponding rises in diabetes and the aging of baby boomers, medical research is more important than ever.
“If there are no breakthroughs for these, there’s going to be a huge social burden,” Bonham said. “There are going to be very specific consequences, very real concerns.”
Those concerns may be particularly acute in South Florida. Both Bonham and Whittaker of Sigma Xi say that while other areas are suffering, neither has heard of any medical school undergoing similarly massive cutbacks. On Friday, Moody’s Investor Service issued an updated credit report on UM: “Although it is unusual for a university to undertake cuts of this magnitude in such a short timeframe, most universities and hospitals have been very focused on expense containment in recent years.”
In 2008, when UM announced plans for a new Life Sciences Park, there was talk of the region becoming another Silicon Valley. Shalala said last week that the new Life Sciences building is progressing but is considered a long-term investment, perhaps taking 20 years to show major results.
Although Whittaker, the Sigma Xi leader, said the cuts in the medical school “will not bode well for the future of the region,” Shalala insists changes must be made. UM, she said, is “clearly overstaffed and underfunded in areas like research.”