Congress intervenes to force continued nuclear medicine funding at DOE

March 27, 2009

Nuclear medicine advocates enlisting the help of Congress have forced the Department of Energy to continue to fund basic research for radioisotope and imaging instruments design, despite DOE plans to use its scientists to develop nuclear imaging tools for biological and environmental applications.

Nuclear medicine advocates enlisting the help of Congress have forced the Department of Energy to continue to fund basic research for radioisotope and imaging instruments design, despite DOE plans to use its scientists to develop nuclear imaging tools for biological and environmental applications.

At the urging of SNM, Congress included language in the fiscal 2009 appropriations act, approved March 11, that specifically instructs DOE to spend $17.5 million on nuclear medicine applications research. Congressional intervention in fiscal 2008 with another $17.5 appropriation required DOE to revive its funding of basic nuclear research at its national laboratories. That action also came after intense SNM lobbying.

DOE national laboratories at Berkeley, CA; Brookhaven, NY; Los Alamos, NM; and elsewhere have been involved in nuclear medicine radiochemistry and instrumentation development since the 1950s. The department's scientists are credited with discoveries considered essential to clinical nuclear imaging practice, according to SNM president Robert Atcher, Ph.D.

A National Academy of Science blue ribbon panel concluded last year that the earlier elimination of DOE funding led to a substantial loss of support for the basic research that underlies nuclear medicine. The panel, headed by Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center radiology director Dr. Hedvig Hricak, called for its restoration.

DOE has moved in a different direction, however, since the Bush administration first attempted to shift funding responsibility for nuclear medicine research from the department to the National Institutes of Health in 2006. The push for change has become even stronger under the Obama administration because of its emphasis on alternative fuels development and global warming issues. The Office of Biological and Environment Research (BER), the DOE group that has traditionally overseen its nuclear medicine programs, is redirecting those resources into biological imaging.

That policy was articulated in a November 2008 DOE workshop on radiochemistry and instrumentation for radionuclide imaging. It noted that radionuclide imaging methods used in human and small-animal imaging are also ideal for plant, microbial, and environmental science. Potential applications included new radioisotopes for tracking nutrients and photosynthetic metabolite flux in plants and new high-resolution imaging devices capable of microscopically depicting plant cells and microbes.

"The program will support fundamental research that will advance our mission in biology and environmental science and develop new methods for real-time, high-resolution imaging of dynamic biological processes," said Anna C. Palmisano, Ph.D., director of BER, in an interview with Diagnostic Imaging.

But for at least the next year, BER will be required to fund nuclear imaging as well because of successful maneuvering by SNM on Capitol Hill. The society chose to concentrate on Congress because it understands that DOE opposes its position, said Hugh Cannon, SNM director of health policy and regulatory affairs.

"This is why we went to Congress looking for language that specifically says how the money will be spent," he said.

Despite efforts to focus her resources on biological applications, Palmisano conceded that BER is obligated to follow the intent of Congress.

"We are committed to being good stewards of taxpayers' dollars and will use the appropriated funds carefully and wisely," Palmisano said in a written response to questions. "We will indeed follow the guidance in the congressional directive."

For more information from the Diagnostic Imaging and SearchMedica archives:

Congress restores DOE funding for nuclear medicine researchSNM advertisement asks Congress to restore DOE fundingNational Academies touts nuclear medicine's revivalAdvocates oppose planned cuts in clinical research