AIDS funding at risk

National funding for the U's AIDS clinic wasn't renewed, leaving the center worried.

Mike Enright

The University’s AIDS Clinical Trials Unit opened Jan. 1, 1987, becoming one of the first federally funded research sites in the country, said principal investigator Dr. Hank Balfour.

Twenty years later, the clinic’s future remains uncertain, and it very likely may be forced to close due to lack of support.

Part of the larger AIDS Clinical Trials Group, the University is one of 10 programs nationally whose funding won’t be renewed by the National Institutes of Health.

Balfour said the NIH dropped the center because they favor sites boasting international research units, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa.

“Being in the center of the United States puts us in a vulnerable position in a sense, because the perception, which is wrong, is we don’t have a lot of HIV/AIDS,” he said. “The other perception, which is wrong, is we don’t have a lot of minorities affected by HIV/AIDS.”

Balfour said some don’t view the sites being closed, including those in Iowa, Nebraska and Hawaii, as diverse as others.

When asked why specific units are losing funding, NIH officials said they could not comment because the overall review process for all site applications is “not yet finalized.”

In the end, shifts in national priorities may seal the fate of the trials unit.

The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the arm of the NIH responsible for funding AIDS research, is also charged with fighting bioterrorism and avian influenza, issues that garnered increased attention in recent years.

“The NIH has less money for AIDS,” Balfour said. “Threats, real or perceived, are coming along and carving up the dollars that were otherwise dedicated to the domestic HIV/AIDS agenda, which is extremely short-sighted and unfortunate.”

The University clinic’s closing is not only a setback for Minnesota, but for the whole Midwest, he said, because people with HIV/AIDS living in the area will no longer have access to the kinds of “cutting-edge” research and treatment such sites provide.

Since the program began, more than 2,000 volunteers enrolled in the studies, which cover all facets of HIV/AIDS research, especially measuring the safety and dosage levels of new medications.

One of those volunteers, 47-year-old Jay Pond, said he still can’t believe the unit will lose funding.

“This is insanity,” he said. “We’ve got this virus in the corner, and the NIH is backing off. We want this virus off the planet.”

Pond, who lived in Tokyo when first diagnosed with HIV in 1991, said he decided to move back to the Midwest after learning he was HIV positive.

He said he chose the Twin Cities because of the high quality treatment offered here.

For the past year, Pond said he participated in a vaccine treatment program offered only at the University.

“I know I had to jump through a lot of hoops to get in the program, and now they’re taking it away from us,” he said. “To take that away from our community is huge, it’s irresponsible.”

Pond isn’t the only one concerned about the possible void created if the University’s research site shuts down.

Lorraine Teel, executive director of the Minnesota AIDS Project, an HIV/AIDS advocacy group, said it’s a concern any time the area loses an important research center.

“It creates an enormous barrier for patients seeking to participate in clinical trials,” she said.

Teel said the site’s closing could also adversely affect the costs of medications and treatments for people in the Twin Cities because it often provides care that others don’t.

Current funding lasts until the end of 2007, and Balfour said he doesn’t know what will happen beyond that, though he doesn’t expect the NIH will pick up the program in the near future.

“This whole thing has been chaos,” he said. “We’re sort of operating as if we’re going to need funding from other sources.”

Balfour said the University’s International Center for Antiviral Research and Epidemiology will temporarily fund the unit and estimated the program can last three years without additional support.