Sequester threatens health research projects

Professor Laura Niedernhofer at the Scripps Research Institute in Florida overlooks the work of one of her scientists.
CBS News

(CBS News) The whole federal budget is more than $3.5 trillion. The budget cut that would start on Friday is $85 billion, or 2.4 percent of the budget.

But some big programs -- such as Social Security -- are exempt. So the cuts will be focused this way: 7.7 percent will come out of Defense and a 5.2 percent out of other spending.

Here's the trouble. The law does not allow bureaucrats to decide where to take the cuts. They must be across the board, cutting the useless as well as the vital.

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Professor Laura Niedernhofer at the Scripps Research Institute in Florida believes her team of 40 scientists can find a drug to diminish the impact of old age. The drug won't keep you young, she says, it would make the old less frail.

"My hypotheses would be that there would actually be drugs that would simultaneously dampen osteoporosis, dementia, maybe some fatigue and muscle wasting all at the same time," she said.

But her funding is in trouble because of automatic budget cuts. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has warned that despite the promise of her research, new grant money won't be approved.

"This line of research will be stopped," Niederhofer said. "There's no other choice. And this is not just my case. There's hundreds of other scientists who are in the exact same boat."

Dr. Francis Collins
Dr. Francis Collins CBS News

Dr. Francis Collins is the director of the NIH. He calls the budget cuts "sand in the engine" in the search for medical discoveries in every area -- cancer, aging, Alzheimers, diabetes.

To reach $1.6 billion in cuts, Collins says the NIH will turn down one thousand of the best new research proposals from the nation's leading labs and medical schools.

"Medical research in America will be slowed by this, advances that could have happened sooner will happen later or perhaps not at all ... And this is what wakes me up in the middle of the night," Collins said.

The cuts will impact Collins directly. He's still a research scientist on diabetes and aging, and he said his personal experiment will be cut.

"We're part of the NIH, so the sequester will hit this laboratory with a 5 percent cut."

Dr. Collins calls cuts to medical research shortsighted. Here's an example: Collins says the NIH is close to finding a universal flu vaccine that could stop every flu strain and last for 3 years. That kind of vaccine could save the economy tens of billions, but might be delayed as the NIH saves 1.6 billion.

  • Wyatt Andrews

    Wyatt Andrews is a CBS News National Correspondent based in Washington D.C. He is responsible for tracking trends in politics, health care, energy, the environment and foreign affairs.