Funding cuts imperil nuclear medicine's innovative tradition

May 1, 2005

The quest for energy, homeland security, and soaring budget deficits are taking their toll on other federally funded programs, and one of the victims could be nuclear medicine research. As detailed in the article on page 13 by Senior Editor James Brice, the Bush administration's budget proposal calls for cuts of $43 million in clinical nuclear medicine research, reducing expenditures to $13.7 million. That's still a hefty amount of money, but several groups-the Society of Nuclear Medicine, the American College of Nuclear Physicians, and the American College of Radiology-are worried enough about the consequences that they have mounted a lobbying effort to stop the budget cuts.

The quest for energy, homeland security, and soaring budget deficits are taking their toll on other federally funded programs, and one of the victims could be nuclear medicine research. As detailed in the article on page 13 by Senior Editor James Brice, the Bush administration's budget proposal calls for cuts of $43 million in clinical nuclear medicine research, reducing expenditures to $13.7 million. That's still a hefty amount of money, but several groups-the Society of Nuclear Medicine, the American College of Nuclear Physicians, and the American College of Radiology-are worried enough about the consequences that they have mounted a lobbying effort to stop the budget cuts.

They are right to be worried.

It is possible that other agencies within the National Institutes of Health could help make up the funding shortfall. Under the administration's federal budget proposal, the NIH budget would increase by $146 million to $28.6 billion. About $10 million of that growth would go to the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, where some jeopardized Department of Energy research programs could qualify for funding. Several other NIH institutes could also help pick up the slack.

Yet it is unlikely that other agencies will make up the entire reduction or even most of it. Even if they did, many of them would be starting from scratch, losing some of the valuable expertise that's been built up in the DOE research program. Research is more than just dollars. It is people, their expertise, and facilities with infrastructure and programs. If Congress accepts the plan, DOE funding of nuclear medicine research would be halted at all DOE national facilities except Brookhaven National Laboratory.

Why does this matter? First, the DOE has racked up an admirable record in running research programs that led to important developments in nuclear medicine. As noted in our article, DOE scientists have contributed 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.

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

The article provides an early look at the likely consequences of the cutbacks. They would be a serious blow to PET instrumentation development at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, according to 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 that is capable of 1.7-mm resolution and a dedicated head scanner equipped with 100,000 detectors.

Multiply this situation dozens of times over, and you begin to see the scope of the problem. For many years, government research programs in medicine have fueled important equipment and clinical developments. But we're in a new era now, and that research funding is coming under pressure. Imagine nuclear medicine without the DOE programs that helped establish the equipment and radiotracers described above. Would we even have the specialty?

We hope the lobbying effort pays off and Congress rejects the plan to cut $43 million from DOE funding for nuclear medicine research. If not, we may look back one day and say that the 2006 federal budget was a serious blow to nuclear medicine.

What are your thoughts on this topic? Please e-mail me at jhayes@cmp.com.