UVa Medical Research Projects in Danger of Losing Funding

April 3, 2013

Big work is being done at a center called "BIG", also know as the Center for Brain Immunology and Glia. Scientists and researchers are beginning to make connections between how a person's environment and immune system can impact the brain's ability to function, laying the groundwork for future treatments and cures for diseases like Autism, Multiple Sclerosis, and Alzheimer's.

"The idea is that the brain isn't acting on its own, but is part of the body," said Dr. Kevin Lee, the chair of the Neuroscience Department at UVa. "Those things going on in the periphery, such as the state of stress or the state of the immune system can modulate behavior and function of the brain in a variety of different disorders."

BIG was created less than a year ago, but is growing fast. "We have a lot of young investigators coming and starting their careers and building around the concept there is an interaction between the immune system and the brain, and that's going to affect everything from Autism through Multiple Sclerosis and a number of neurodegenerative diseases," Lee said.

But Lee fears sequestration cuts will halt all of this research. "As it's a growing entity, I would believe that would be most at risk by these cuts that are coming out."

UVa operates with a research budget of $300 million dollars, with two thirds of that money coming from federal funding. In the last few weeks, UVa officials say they have been notified that their federal funds will be cut by about seven percent, due to sequestration in Congress. That equates to about $11 million dollars, according to Jeffrey Blank, the assistant vice president of research at UVa.

"We've contacted schools and departments and we've recommended two things," Blank said. "Contact their program manager so if they have a grant that's been submitted, to ask how it's faring in the sequestration. We also have a bridge funding program, for those faculty that are in between a grant waiting to hear back about this. We can provide them with a little bit of money to tide them over to keep their research labs going."

It's not just research money on the line with the sequestration cuts. There are also jobs hanging in the balance. Blank said over 3400 jobs at UVa depend on federal research funding. "We can anticipate between 150 and 200 jobs could be impacted because of the sequestration cuts," Blank said.

In March, Congress passed a continuing resolution to keep the government running for another six months. The move leaves people like Lee in limbo, waiting to see what will happen with funding.

"We have a pipeline of trainees that is eight years long," Lee said. "That means, when you disrupt this, it's not like a water or gas pipeline you can turn off or on at will. Once you disturb that, it's hard to reinstate it and causes long delays. I really see this as a tremendous threat to our ongoing research endeavors here."

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