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Cancer Researcher Turns to Crowdfunding to Support His Research

Posted Dec 03 2013 12:00am

Medical researchers are turning to new ways to fund their work in light of cuts at the NIH due to the sequester and chronic cost-cutting by the agency. I recently blogged about a project at the University of Michigan called MCubed in which individuals outside of the University are encouraged to fund seed projects at the University to the tune of $75,000 (see:  Fund Your Own Seed Research Project at the University of Michigan ). For MCubed, the funders must have a research question in mind to ask and then are able to tap into the UM faculty resources to get answers. Another approach is being tried at the University of Minnesota by a surgeon/researcher; he is pursuing crowdfunding to support his  cancer treatment research (see: Impatient with NIH, cancer researcher turns to crowdfunding ), Below is an excerpt that provides more details about this approach:

Dr. Daniel Saltzman says he can prove that bacteria that ordinarily cause food poisoning in people can be modified for use as guided missiles to deliver cancer-killing payloads into tumors. But he needs $500,000 for some preliminary work, and despite his project’s potential, he’s not holding his breath for funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the nation’s leading source of biomedical research grants. So Saltzman has teamed up with an entrepreneur in the television industry and Twin Cities advertising and public relations professionals to make an unusual direct appeal to the public. In the process, he’s helping to bring so-called crowdsourcing to the field of medical research....To convince people of his work’s promise, Saltzman and his partner have built a website branding his research “Project Stealth,” created an eye-catching plush toy to represent the salmonella bacterium, made a video featuring Saltzman and a golden retriever named Buddy, and turned to private fundraising events and crowdfunding avenues like . Saltzman, who has raised about $32,000 since launching Project Stealth in mid-October, acknowledges that the approach is unusual. But he says that, with federal research funds getting tighter every year, he had little choice....

Over the past decade, inflation has eroded more than 20 percent of the buying power of NIH grants for scientists studying genomics, neurology, cancer, heart disease and countless other health issues. With so many competing projects, NIH has reduced the percentage of requests it has funded. Such novel fundraising methods raise concerns because they don’t go through the conventional peer-review process, said Arthur Caplan, a medical ethicist at New York University’s Langone Medical Center. And when they rely on celebrities, as some do, they can draw money for reasons other than scientific merit, he said....Caplan’s only concern was why the project hadn’t drawn NIH or foundation funding given its promising results in animals.....The idea of crowdfunding Saltzmans’ work came from Max Duckler, a semiretired entrepreneur who in 1993 founded CaptionMax , a closed-captioning service for television. Duckler has a degree in biology and a lifelong fascination with medicine. He attended a fundraiser where he bid to spend a day with a surgeon. He won, shadowed Saltzman on six surgeries, and learned about the cancer research. Duckler said he was disturbed to find that Saltzman and his lab workers were worried whether they could afford to spend $600 to buy special research mice.

We are obviously moving from a highly controlled, peer-reviewed research funding environment to one that differs in many respects. On the one hand, I applaud the efforts of individuals like Dr. Saltzman who seems to have a flair for marketing and promotion of his research. However, does the lack of NIH funding suggest a lack of merit for the research? Not necessarily because NIH funds are diminishing, as noted above, and it's often difficult for younger researchers to get a toehold in the NIH funding hierarchy. It's to Dr. Saltzman's credit that he has gotten the attention of an entrepreneur named Max Duckler who is working on Saltzman's behalf. Although the NIH peer-review system is tried and true, it tends to favor accepted research hypotheses and researchers with well-known mentors. Medical researchers have always been required to be entrepreneurial in the sense that they have to continuously hustle for funding. Some of these new funding approaches can only stimulate this entrepreneurship. Hopefully, all of this will result in better research outcomes.

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