Advocates oppose planned cuts in clinical research

May 1, 2005

The nuclear medicine community is fighting proposed federal budget cuts that would end most Department of Energy support for basic nuclear medical research.

The nuclear medicine community is fighting proposed federal budget cuts that would end most Department of Energy support for basic nuclear medical research.

The Society of Nuclear Medicine, American College of Nuclear Physicians, and American College of Radiology have joined to oppose provisions in the proposed federal budget for fiscal year 2006 that would reduce spending on clinical nuclear medicine research at the DOE by 68%, to $13.7 million.

According to Ari Patrinos, Ph.D., director of biological and environmental research in the DOE's Office of Science, about $6 million would be used to continue the support of nuclear medicine science. If Congress accepts the plan, DOE funding of nuclear medicine research would be halted at all DOE national facilities except Brookhaven National Laboratory.

The proposed FY 2006 budget cuts stunned prominent nuclear medicine researchers, who credit DOE scientists for contributing to nearly every major innovation in clinical nuclear medicine practice. Their accomplishments include the development of the gamma camera, the high-resolution PET camera, microPET, the molybdenum-technetium generator, thallium-201 and fluorine-18 fluorodeoxyglucose synthesis, and tumor receptor imaging.

"DOE research has made nuclear medicine imaging what it is today," said Dr. Michael Welch, director of nuclear medicine research at Washington University.

The agency's success stems from its historic willingness to support basic research, according to Dr. Steven Larson, director of nuclear medicine at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.

The DOE has been a training ground for generations of imaging scientists and has created an environment for scientific discovery at its laboratories that is unmatched anywhere in the world, said Joanna Fowler, Ph.D., director of the Center for Translational Neuroimaging at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, NY.

The budget cuts would be a serious blow to PET instrumentation development at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, said Dr. Tom Budinger, chair of nuclear medicine and functional imaging. He stands to lose DOE funding that currently covers 30% of design costs for five investigational systems, including a PET mammography system capable of 1.7-mm resolution and a dedicated head scanner equipped with 100,000 detectors.

Such items were eliminated from the DOE budget because of costs associated with the war on terrorism and the need to reduce the budget deficit, Patrinos said. Nuclear medicine's burden was especially heavy because of changing department priorities. Energy and environmental issues have taken precedence over the DOE's traditional role relating to atomic energy. Opportunities to fund the programs through the National Institutes of Health also influenced the decision.

"This does represent a significant shift, and it comes with some sadness and regret," he said.

Although the NIH may support many DOE projects, nuclear medicine researchers fear it will not fund the type of high-risk lines of inquiry that have led to breakthroughs at the Department of Energy.

"The DOE has allowed us to run with new ideas," Fowler said. "When something looked like it can be translated for clinical use, we apply to the NIH for funding."

Within two days of the budget announcement on Feb. 7, SNM president Mathew Thakur, Ph.D., and other officials of the society began lobbying against it. They met with representatives of the Congressional Office of Management and Budget and the executive director of the Office of Science and Technology.

In response to a joint SNM-ACNP call to action, 2526 e-mails and 174 printed letters were directed to federal lawmakers by March 22, according to Thakur. The society is promoting a letter-writing campaign through its Web site, www.snm.gov. The Academy of Radiology Research has also announced its opposition to the budget proposal.

The ACR is concentrating lobbying efforts on the House Appropriations subcommittee on energy and water, the congressional starting point for the budget proposal, said Gloria Romanelli, ACR regulatory relations director.

"We know that it will be a tight budget appropriations session, but it is also an important research program," she said. "If we can win this issue on the House side, it will be much less of a concern on the Senate side."

At Brookhaven, Fowler stressed that the DOE laboratories will not easily be duplicated elsewhere if the department decides to discontinue their operations.

"The way medicine is practiced in the future will grow out of the scientific tools we are developing today. This work is worth fighting for," she said.