A health care challenge for the next president



We live in a world of modern miracles, surrounded by technology that was unimaginable just a few years ago. Yet despite all of these advancements, far too many terrible diseases remain without cures. From Alzheimers to cancer to HIV and countless others, far too many Americans – and indeed people globally – are seeing their lives cut short by disease.

The next president will have the opportunity to leave a legacy of revolutionary changes in medicine if he or she is willing to take the steps necessary to pave the way.

In the recently passed omnibus spending bill, Congress recognized the importance of investing in our health by including a significant increase in funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH). This investment should be applauded – the NIH has been the centerpiece of advancements such as mitigating heart disease deaths by 60% over the last 50 years.

The candidates on the debate stages this week should know that if we are serious in this fight, however, while increased funding for NIH is an important first step – it alone is not enough. As important, if not more important, than how much money we spend is how we spend those dollars.

Translational research focuses on goal-driven, specific cures and accelerating their path from research to implementation.  Unfortunately, only about 2 percent of current federal funding goes to translational research. 

If we take a more balanced approach between traditional bench research and translational research we can lower system wide health care costs, speed up the discovery of cures, and improve the quality of care for patients.

Not only can translational research save money, save lives and improve patient care - it can also enjoy wide bipartisan support.  In a poll conducted for Houston Methodist by Luntz Global, 88% of respondents said they were unfamiliar with translational research, however once they were explained what translational research was, support for increased funding for translational research rose from 9 percent to 65 percent.  Furthermore, a large majority believed that translational research should get at least the same amount of funding as traditional research – if not more.

Simply put, translational research is based on the single most important goal: efficiently and effectively finding real cures that improve and save lives, and getting them to patients as quickly and safely as possible.

It’s not just us in the medical profession who realize that we need to change how we spend our critical health care investments. The American people understand that there has to be a better way to deliver the cures that are in development, but are stalled by bureaucracy and the inefficient approaches of the past.  That same Luntz survey found that spending money more efficiently is considered a crucial attribute of successful research (42 percent).

There is a better way and translational research is that better way. With translational research, the focus is on the result, not the process. Translational research recognizes that knowledge exists to change lives, but it must be tested, confirmed, and applied.

Funding translational research should be a top priority for the next president because unlike traditional, exploratory research, translational research focuses on bringing cures straight to patients.

I am not advocating that traditional exploratory research isn’t important – it is. The truth is that taxpayers shouldn't and don’t have to choose between traditional and translational research. Both serve important purposes, and we can—and should--invest in both. In fact, translational research fills the important gap from theory to practice.

The next president can lead a medical revolution that could save and extend the lives of tens of millions of Americans. By making sure that taxpayer dollars are spent effectively through a balanced approach between traditional exploratory research and translational research the next president can leave behind a transformational legacy of medical modernization and innovation.  Let’s balance funding between traditional and translation research and get patients the cures they deserve.

Dr. Mauro Ferrari serves as President and CEO of Houston Methodist Research Institute. Dr. Ferrari is an expert in the use of nanotechnology in medicine and recognized as one of the founders of the field of nanomedicine.