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Making a Lasting Impact on MS Research Funding

By Justin McAuliffe, March 10, 2015

The Foundation has based its MS medical research funding on the belief that philanthropy can fill vital funding gaps and push forward innovation that may lead to paradigm-shifting breakthroughs.

The fight against MS is a deeply personal one for us. Our involvement is rooted in the personal fight of Marilyn Hilton—Barron Hilton’s late wife—against progressive MS, from which she suffered much of her adult life. Our funding strategy is centered on the long-term goal of finding both treatments and a cure for the disease, as well as wellness programming efforts to help those who have the disease to live full and meaningful lives.

The Foundation has based its MS medical research funding on the belief that philanthropy can fill vital funding gaps and push forward innovation that may lead to paradigm-shifting breakthroughs. Increasingly, funding for medical research goes toward proven researchers and incremental projects rather than truly innovative thinking.

A number of factors have led to the current environment of reduced risk-taking. On the public side, medical research is predominately funded by a few large nation-wide institutional donors, such as the federal government through the National Institutes of Health, which can dramatically affect the funding landscape if programs are cut or reduced. As a government-funded organization, the NIH has a responsibility to its stakeholders to be responsible stewards of taxpayer dollars, especially in today’s economy, which has only recently started to recover. As the NIH has seen its funding drop by over 20% in real dollars over the last decade, the number of funded proposals has correspondingly dropped by almost half. (NIH Success Rates) Currently, the application funding rate stands at 18%, creating what some scientists say is an environment of “short-term thinking in applicants, reviewers, and funders.” Compounding this problem is the increasing reliance of universities on federal grant dollars to pay teachers’ salaries and keep labs open, which leads to the submission of safe proposals for review.

In the private sector, financial pressures have also caused pharmaceutical companies to take fewer risks as they search for new drugs. As the costs of developing new drugs and receiving FDA approval have increased—by some estimates, it costs pharmaceutical companies roughly $1 billion or more to develop a new drug and bring it to market—pharmaceutical companies have been reluctant to invest in the discovery of truly new treatments, instead focusing on repackaging or reformulating existing drugs or repurposing already discovered treatments for new purposes.

Last year, we created the Marilyn Hilton Award for Innovation in MS Research specifically to direct funding towards innovative and risky research projects which have the potential to create significant change. Our intent was to identify groundbreaking research which may not have received funding from traditional sources, but with potential to greatly improve the lives of those living with MS. Recognizing that the current landscape can often deter promising young scientists, the Foundation also has a special interest in supporting promising young researchers in the field. (Young, Brilliant, and Underfunded)

While philanthropic funding can never replace the important role of governmental and pharmaceutical funding, we believe that philanthropic funders such as the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation can play a vitally important support role. We can fund the preliminary studies which have the promise for creating change but perhaps do not yet have enough data to solicit funding from larger and more risk-adverse donors. Moving forward, we hope to fill this role by funding more high-risk, high-reward projects with an emphasis on fostering young researchers in the field. We understand that some of our investments may fail, but we hope that we can spur the discovery of a truly paradigm-changing solution for those living with MS.

Justin McAuliffe Twitter

Program Associate, Special Programs

Justin McAuliffe Twitter

Program Associate, Special Programs

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