TUESDAY, SEPT. 11, 2012

Editorial: Editorial: State should continue to fund research in life sciences

Dr. John Roll, a researcher for the College of Nursing at WSU-Spokane, trains primary care doctors in rural counties on how to tackle the challenging issue of painkiller abuse. In an urban setting, doctors can turn to mental health professionals to manage such cases. But out in the country those experts often aren’t available.

Roll’s goal has been to turn rural doctors into experts. Thanks to his program, doctors are guided through the process of achieving a federal waiver, so they can administer buprenorphine, a drug that helps stem opiate cravings so that appropriate treatment can be administered for chronic pain issues and related addictions.

Researchers learned of the opiate abuse issue and its impact on the mental health of rural patients by reading medical students’ journals. The students were overwhelmed with a problem they didn’t know how to address. Now, many primary care doctors in the hinterlands have the knowledge and tools they need.

Roll’s program was jump-started with a grant from the Washington Life Sciences Discovery Fund, which was created by the Legislature in 2005. His project is just one of many worthy ventures made possible by this forward-thinking law designed to improve health care, stimulate economic activity and keep the state competitive in the life sciences.

The money comes from the tobacco settlements bargained by the states.

To date, $88.6 million in grants has been disbursed, with an estimated economic impact of seven times that amount. Most of the grants are aimed at activity that can be commercialized. Nearly four out of five grants have a corporate partner.

In Eastern Washington, researchers at the Washington State University campuses in Spokane and Pullman, and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, have been the recipients of several grants. Many of the projects, such as Roll’s, have had a direct impact on the lives of Eastern Washingtonians.

Some other areas of regional study center on wheat varieties for celiac sufferers and “smart home” sensors to monitor the well-being of elderly patients in their own homes. Cancer Targeted Technologies, which deals with prostate cancer, is one example of a startup company that received seed money from the Life Sciences Discovery Fund. A medical school in Spokane would provide the opportunity for much more research in our region.

So would potential partnerships with the Health Sciences & Services Authority of Spokane County.

The legislation enabling the fund has a 10-year sunset provision, which means the final check could be written in 2017. The Legislature has many interests clamoring for money as it struggles to balance the budget. Annual funding has already been cut 85 percent.

Hopefully, in five years the economy will brighten to the point that the state’s commitment to being a catalyst for important – and profit-making – breakthroughs in the life sciences can continue. The money is well-spent.

To respond to this editorial online, go to www.spokesman.com and click on Opinion under the Topics menu.

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