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San Diego Cancer Research At Risk As Sequestration Looms

February 20, 2013 2:02 p.m.

Dr. Thomas J. Kipps, Deputy Director for Research at Moores Cancer Center at UC San Diego

Jimmy Jackson, Vice President of Public Policy at BIOCOM

Related Story: San Diego Cancer Research At Risk As Sequestration Looms


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, it's Wednesday, February 20th. Our top story on Midday Edition is the potential effect of sequestration cuts on San Diego's biotech and research institutions. Usually when we're told of the impact of government spending cuts on San Diego, it's the defense industry that gets the most attention. But cutbacks and spending on medical and life science research could also have a profound effect. According to the American Cancer Society, federal national institutes of health grants for research in California amount to more than $3.5 billion a year and pay the salaries of 63,000 people. I'd like to welcome my guests, doctor Thomas Kipps is Deputy Director of research at the Moores Cancer Center at UCSD.

KIPPS: Thank you, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Jimmy Jackson is here, Vice President of public policy at BIOCOM.

JACKSON: Thank you, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Now, the impact of federal sequestration cuts on medical research seems to have flown under the radar for most people. Dr. Kips, how are people in the world of research reacting to this possibility?

KIPPS: Well, I think that the idea of sequestration seems so abstract right now, we all think that this is something that is not likely to happen but as we approach the time when the sequestration will take effect, I think we are taking notice that this actually may happen. I think the rep cushions of this might be huge, not just for the defense industry, but also for the medical sciences and for sciences in general. I think the American public has been particularly generous in terms of funding research, and this is fueled by imagination for things that are new, for not accepting today's problems as being there forever, for seeking now solutions to these problems. And this is very evident in the area of biomedical research, and in particular, the area of cancer research. I have the privilege of being engaged in cancer research at the Moores Cancer Center at UC San Diego, and I must say it's been phenomenal over the last several years. The growth of information and the optimism that we have that formally intractable diseases might have solutions which are much more palatable. We might be able to make meaningful cures for diseases that formerly were considered incurable. So this is an exciting time, and this idea of sequestration comes as a jolt of reality as we have to grapple with the potential to cut back significantly on research that is currently ongoing and have to deal with the short-term as long as the longer term ramifications of that.

CAVANAUGH: And Jimmy Jackson, let me get from you the kinds of information that you've been getting from your member companies about the idea that this is sinking in, that this sequestration possibility is now becoming a likelihood.

JACKSON: Well, our member companies are very, very concerned because they -- you know, some of them are the research institutions and academic institutions themselves, but other ones are the smaller companies that rely on the research that is going on in those places to then provide the discoveries which they turn into something that they try and commercialize or try and develop further along in the process where you get a commercialized product that actually gets to the consumer and the general public which is is the whole reason that the federal government funds a lot of this retch in the first place. Eventually that's where these -- that's where the cures of tomorrow are going to come from, from places like UCSD and the Salk and the Sanford Bernam Institute, and Scripps. Those are the places where the basic research is happening that leads to these cures and as doctor kips was saying, sometimes it's not even a cure but you make a fatal disease a chronic disease. So now you're treating it on a daily or monthly basis rather than it being something that is in essence, a death sentence.

CAVANAUGH: Can you give me an overview of the types of research that is going on here in San Diego that could be affected by the sequestration cuts?

JACKSON: San Diego is one of the most robust research clusters in the country. Generally speaking, there are three principle life science clusters in the country that most people concede are the top three. The Boston/Cambridge area, the San Francisco bay area, and there's San Diego. Of the three, San Diego has historically been the most cutting edge in researching everything from -- we have incredible cancer researchers, immunology, there's work on Alzheimer's disease that's going on here that is very exciting. Just about any major condition you can think of, there is probably a researcher in San Diego who's trying to work and develop something for those conditions.

CAVANAUGH: Let me ask you this, Jimmy. BIOCOM builds itself as the largest regional life science association in the world, representing more than 550 member companies in Southern California. Why would a cutback of federal money affect private companies so much? Can't they find their own investors?

JACKSON: Well, since the beginning of the recession, 2007, 2008, the investor money has been very hard to come by, to be honest with you. And the investors that have been investing have been investing in later-stage companies, companies that are much farther along in the process to commercialization. So it actually makes it even more important that these basic research dollars are there and the basic research is going on so that you continue to have a robust pipeline of potential discoveries that are then being worked on or being brought to clinical trials so they may be, one or two of them out of hundreds, will eventually get to a patient and be life-changing.

CAVANAUGH: And where do we get most of this federal money from? The NIH and the FDA?

JACKSON: Actually the FDA does not give grants for discovery. NIH, and underneath that, the National Cancer Institute are major funders of a lot of this research, especially that's going on here in San Diego. BIOCOM does an economic impact report. Our 2011 numbers say it was approximately $800million to San Diego County. And that's money that gets multiplied out into the community in terms of jobs and then jobs that are built upon those jobs. So it really does affect the entire economic health of the region, not just of our sector.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Dr. Kips, how do you think this cutback if it does actually happen would work? Will some projects have to stop before completion?

KIPPS: I think that it's even more than just having to stop project for a temporary stopgap. It may have to deal with cutting down research projects that are in process, and in so doing have an interruption in research that might take sometime to remedy. And we have to understand that research is a vital activity that we hope to inspire young people going into research. I think young applicant, there's quite a few gifted, intelligent students at UC San Diego and other universities, and I think that they're inspired to go into areas where they feel not only that there will be an exciting element of discovery, but also a pathway to being able to make a career out of this. I think that the cutback for how long that lasts will have some devastating rep cushions in influencing our young people as well.

CAVANAUGH: Dr. Kips, I was just going to ask you to tell us a little bit about your work as a cancer researcher. You've been working on new drug therapies; is that right?

KIPPS: That's correct. Our focus is on leukemia and in particular one type of leukemia, chronic lymphocytic leukemia. So you're found to have an incurable illness and it can be very disruptive to your mindset. But we have now with the potential issuing able to uncover some of the reasons of why this disease exists, we're finding Achilles heels to this disease that can be used to target our approaches to therapy, whether that be small molecules or various forms of immune therapy. It's exciting to see where we had patients who formally did not have any remedy for their condition now responding well to some of these new advances in treatment. This is very encouraging for us. And it's very gratifying to see, but it's also a very human experience, seeing someone improve that normally would not have had a chance.

CAVANAUGH: And that's a very important point. I'm glad you brought that out. This work is actually affecting patients right now. This is not just laboratory work. I think you've worked with people who have had reoccurrences of cancer after conventional treatment.

KIPPS: That's correct. I think a lot of the research ongoing is not just in the laboratory but there's a communication between the laboratory and the clinic because as we make discoveries and have them implemented in the clinic, we make new findings. The and they have to then return back into the laboratory where we re-find the findings and improve upon it. I think the whole enterprise is very exciting, but it does really affect people's lives, and that makes it very vital and I think very gratifying to be involved with.

CAVANAUGH: I asked Jimmy Jackson of BIOCOM why private companies can't generate funds for the research. Let me ask you, Dr. Kips, cancer research refers quite a bit of money from nonprofits like the American cancer society. Why therefore is that federal funding so important to you?

KIPPS: Well, the federal funding still is comprising a large bulling of the funding. I think that the generosity of the American people is unparalleled compared to other countries. And it's reflected by the philanthropic organizations such as the American cancer society, the leukemia and lymphoma society, and this has been a vital input to the research activities here in the United States. I think what the NIH, they still provide the lion's share of research money, and it's important to understand that this type of money is not just funding activities that are ongoing but it's financing our future. The discoveries of the future are what's going to govern new job, new therapies, and new treatment strategies that right now we can't even imagine. If we were to cut back on this research, it's like giving away our intellectual seed corn for the future.

CAVANAUGH: Let me ask you both, there are those who say the federal deficit is too high. And we've got to do something to get it under control. These people say the deficit is going to overwhelm us in the future and even if it hurts, we've got to cut back. What do you say to that argument?

JACKSON: Well, in terms of biomedical research, our response to that is the types of things that are going on in our industry actually eventually save the government and the U.S. population dollars in that you have people who you are extending their lives, curing them faster. With the advent of personalized medicine and genome sequencing, you have the possibility of individualizing therapies to where you don't waste time for six months, a year firing therapies at a cancer that aren't going to work because you'll know at the beginning that it will respond to these kinds of therapies and be able to target and go right at it. So eventually those kinds of discoveries, that kind of research saves the taxpayer dollars, because we're not going to be wasting them on things that won't work. But to get to that that point, you have to continue to fund this research to where you can get these discoveries refined to the point where they can be turned into actual cures or treatments.

CAVANAUGH: And doctor kips?

KIPPS: I think this is also a tremendous investment in the future. It's almost to say that we give up on our future. I think other countries are looking at the United States and trying to emulate us. So the government in Europe and Asia are increasing their funding for research. Why? Because they recognize that with research comes new discoveries that result in the development of intellectual property that actually governs the growth of new companies, new enterprises, new jobs. So you're not talking about just the patients for the future, but it's actually presenting us with the economy of the furious. And to short-change our ability to engage in that future is really to sacrifice our stage on the world that would allow us to be competitive for these future jobs.

CAVANAUGH: Have you and other researchers been doing anything to prepare for the sequestration cuts?

KIPPS: I think as I mentioned to you, we have so many things that we are doing that we hope that this doesn't happen. And it doesn't seem like it's a -- it seems more like an abstraction. I don't think many people thought this was going to take place. There's still hope that it doesn't take place. I don't think even the politicians in Washington really expect this to take place. But I am really confused by this sort of feeling that it's now becoming almost a certainty in some people's minds, and this is a self-generated crisis. If you were, for example, to have a debt or deficit to make cuts in your budget that, to use an analogy, you sold your car and now no longer could get to work, and then lose your job, that would be hardly a way to solve the debt that you have to pay back. So what we're doing by indiscriminate cuts of this nature is we're selling the cars that may allow us to actually achieve the economic growth that will get us out of the debt in the future. This is something that has to be very much fought back on, and I'm very hopeful and optimistic that our politicians in Washington will see this and at the 11th hour, the sequestration will not pass. I have faith in our congressmen, our Senator, and the administration that they will work hard to prevent this from happening. So I think to be in science, one has to be an optimist. By hard work and through preparation and observations and dedication to certain goals that you might have to try and figure out intractable problems that need solutions that you will find an answer. You don't go into that business if you're not an optimist. So I'm still optimistic that these solutions will be found. And as a consequence, we have not made a lot of preparations for closing things. I think it's going to hit everyone like a two by four over the head if it does happen. And the rep cushions of it will be far more devastating than we'd like to think about right now.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you both for speaking with me.

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