In Praise of Senator Ted Kennedy For His Contributions to Biomedical Science
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progress but the question remains, will it be fast enough to impact the coming epidemic of the disease as the baby boomers age?
AIDS is the worst pandemic of modern times, killing tens of millions of people around the world—and here again, Senator Kennedy’s statesmanship has been important. As the pandemic unfolded across this country in the early 80’s there was wide discrimination against individuals who contracted the virus. Senator Kennedy was instrumental, along with Senator Orrin Hatch, in helping to reduce this fear by passing the Ryan White CARE Act. This law made AIDS research and treatment a national priority, and, as a result, there has been a reduction in the prejudice against those infected. As you recall, Ryan White was a young boy who fought to attend school after being diagnosed with AIDS.
Due to the Senator’s action many drugs have been developed that markedly decrease the rate of progression of the disease, and we now consider AIDS a treatable disease. However, we have not mastered this scourge of mankind. The ultimate victory requires the development of a vaccine. In this effort, we have exhausted all of our current knowledge without success. The National Institutes of Health and drug companies have turned their focus to advancing the understanding of the human immune system for new clues for development of an effective vaccine. In spite of this disappointment, it is clear that Senator Kennedy’s leadership was critical in our current mastery of AIDS.
Innovations in healthcare are dependent upon a wise federal regulatory system that works in an open and effective manner. Senator Kennedy recognized this early in his career, and in 1976 authored an act to include medical devices in the regulatory authority of the Food and Drug Administration, i.e. the FDA. He also promoted legislation in 1992 that increased the FDA budget by levying fees on drug companies to help with the cost of approval of new drugs. Another act championed by the Senator in this area was the Orphan Drug Act that encouraged companies to develop new drugs for rare diseases. The Senator’s leadership in regulatory affairs over the decades has been important for both healthcare and biomedical research.
As mentioned above, New England is the center of research and development of healthcare. Quoting from a 2006-7 study of this life science super-cluster, one in every six employees in the state works in this industrial sector. Every year, this cluster attracts over $2 billion of federal research funds from the National Institutes of Health, the highest per capital number in the country.
This level of Federal support reflects the excellence of the community. The future of this innovation in healthcare was greatly strengthened in 1998, when Senator Kennedy, along with others, helped pass the doubling of the National Institutes of Health budget. At the time, the initiative to sequence the human genome was in full swing and the insights gained from this information promised to lead to the development of means of controlling and treating many diseases. The Senator stated at the time, “We all had to fight to create the extraordinary medical innovations we enjoy today, and we have to fight as hard now to maintain that progress.” He followed this with a statement that is relevant today as federal support for the National Institute of Health decreases: “A culture of innovation and discovery and high-quality healthcare does not just happen. It must be nurtured or it will wither.”
Again, the Senator’s insights that led to doubling of the budget were correct. In the short five years since completion of the doubling that coincided with completion of the human genome sequence, there has been tremendous progress made in terms of understanding the causes of mental disease, the underlying nature of genetic changes in cancer, and even the nature of the aging process and aging-related diseases. This increase in funding will translate into better quality healthcare for the country and the world.
For 40 years, Senator Kennedy has been—as he will continue to be—a strong voice for the importance of biomedical research and healthcare. Our country has benefited enormously from his leadership. Further, New England’s pre-eminence in life sciences is largely a product of his enlightened work in the Senate. We sincerely thank him for his magnificent contributions. We also wish him a speedy recovery.