Opinion Columns & Blogs

Save the Life Sciences Discovery Fund

Imagine a vaccine that could curb E. coli or Salmonella. Picture doctors able to offer better treatments to cancer patients due to immunotherapy advances. Or a stroke patient alive because of new technology that allowed doctors to find and remove blood clots from the brain. Innovative research into all these areas has been funded by the Life Sciences Discovery Fund (LSDF).

That critical research won’t just make our lives better — it’s also good for business.

The future economic strength of the United States relies on continuing to lead the world in innovative research and development. Here in Washington state, our economy is even more reliant on innovation, particularly in the fast-growing life sciences sector.

That is why the action taken last week in the state Senate to abruptly terminate the LSDF is both puzzling as well as disheartening.

Established in 2005, the LSDF is a unique program that invests funds from the Master Tobacco Settlement Agreement and leverages Washington’s life sciences research and development sector to provide better health for our citizens, promote economic growth and enhance research competitiveness.

Current LSDF grants are helping to drive the innovation that will create the future of health care, with new treatments for diseases such as breast cancer and juvenile diabetes, new diagnostics for Alzheimer’s disease and influenza, and new devices to improve the lives of stroke patients and amputees. The LSDF pipeline also involves 33 startup companies whose work will create an array of new jobs for the future, from R&D to manufacturing to sales.

Eliminating the LSDF also stems the flow of follow-on funding that comes into the state of Washington. LSDF grants have led to $450 million in additional dollars coming into the state in follow-on grants, matching funds and private investment, and have saved an additional $67 million in unneeded health care costs — together resulting in a seven-fold return on the original LSDF investment. These numbers translate into over 3,000 jobs and one billion dollars of economic activity.

This critical work must continue. To suddenly defund research and development — including funding already committed to multi-year projects currently underway — unnecessarily thwarts innovation and injects uncertainty into one of our state’s critical economic drivers.

This unprecedented action also sends a disturbing message about the commitment of the state to the innovation economy. It will stifle the flow of new technologies from our universities and research institutions into life-saving treatments and therapies and halt the activities of many promising young companies.

Last week, representatives from the life sciences sector rallied to save the LSDF. Leaders from across the state joined together to urge the Legislature to keep an investment that has paid off for our state. They included research institutions such as Seattle Children’s, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, University of Washington and Washington State University; industry leaders from companies big and small; and regional economic development partners who know the value of the work LSDF supports.

We also believe that it is short-sighted to terminate this program, given its accomplishments to date and its importance to our economic and health care future.

We urge Gov. Jay Inslee and the Legislature to ensure that full funding be restored to LSDF and its grantees. The return on our investment in LSDF can be measured in saved lives, reduced health care costs, and built businesses.

It is an investment that works for Washington.

Lee Huntsman is president emeritus of the University of Washington and the inaugural executive director of the Life Sciences Discovery Fund. Lee Hartwell is the president emeritus at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine.