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Medical free-electron laser program targeted for cuts

Nov 2007
Anne L. Fischer

A 20-year-old program that has developed advanced procedures for battlefield-related medical problems has been targeted for elimination by the US Department of Defense. The Pentagon’s budget zeroed out funding for the Medical Free-Electron Laser program in 2008.

This peer-reviewed, merit-based, competitive program has been administered by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research. Funding averaged $17 million a year, which was distributed among centers at Duke University in Durham, N.C., Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., the University of California in Irvine, Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., and Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. Some of the discoveries made possible by this program focused on improving medicine, especially for treating those wounded in combat.

At Duke, for example, funding goes toward solving problems in biology and medicine, including combat casualty care, according to Glenn Edwards, director of the Duke Free-Electron Laser Laboratory. But the laboratory also has an interdisciplinary mix, with researchers developing unique technology such as light sources, which enable breakthroughs in physical and life sciences.

Edwards said that the laboratory has used the government funds to develop a protocol for human brain surgery during which there is little if any collateral injury; to make seminal measurements identifying physicochemical properties of molecular assemblies in neurons associated with degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s; and to develop compact and sensitive thermal imaging techniques for use in trauma diagnosis.

Studies proposed include investigating wound healing with restoration of function in injuries to nerves; developing novel imaging capabilities that, when coupled with previous developments, will enable surgery with single-cell spatial resolution; and investigating trauma-induced neurodegenerative diseases for potential treatment protocols. The Duke lababoratory’s current grant ends Dec. 31, so cutbacks will begin to be felt this fall, Edwards estimates.

David W. Piston is director of the Free-Electron Laser Center at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. He believes that research will be able to continue for another year at Vanderbilt, “but if the program remains at a low level of funding, then it would certainly change its character a lot.” He indicated that a substantial budget cut could lead the Department of Defense to reduce the number of funded centers and believes that such a move would be irreversible. “Once the staff expertise is dismantled, it would be cost-prohibitive to rebuild it.” Piston added that, over the years, the program funding has fluctuated, so it could bounce back in the future.

The Beckman Laser Institute at the University of California, Irvine, has been a recipient of these funds for 20 years, which co-founder Michael Berns said is one of the largest annual federal grants to the university. Funded projects range from studies on lung damage caused by smoke inhalation and by other toxic chemicals to projects on laser-based reconstruction of the jaw and facial area following injury. He indicated that this funding represents 20 to 30 percent of the institute’s entire research program.

“The projects will just end,” Berns said, adding that collaboration between the institute and the US Army Institute for Surgical Research in San Antonio will be “greatly curtailed, if not eliminated.” He finds it “unconscionable” that a program that is doing so much to help those wounded in battle is being eliminated, noting that it takes the pharmaceutical industry eight to 11 years and about $1 billion to get one drug to market, whereas the Medical Free-Electron Laser Program (MFEL) has “turned out multiple treatments at a fraction of the cost and in record time.”

Funding of the program had won strong support from senators from North Carolina, Massachusetts, Tennessee and California, all of whom urged the Pentagon to fund the program at $20 million, but the response was that there are other priorities. The program is expected to receive earmarks of about $2 million in the House defense appropriations bill and $3 million in the Senate’s bill, which Edwards at Duke believes will be used to “systematically and safely shut down the national MFEL program.” A Senate panel has asked for a plan to address the research and its applications.

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