Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough, has championed numerous issues of importance to California's biomedical community, including reforms to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and funding increases for the National Institutes of Health. Speier, who serves as co-chair of the Biomedical Research Caucus in the House of Representatives, represents a congressional district that includes some of the biggest names in biotech and academia, from Genentech to UCSF. In 2012, Newsweek named Congresswoman Speier as one of the 150 fearless women in the world. During her more than 30 years of public service, she has passionately advocated for women's issues and health access.
Q: You are aware of the numbers regarding this industry: 270,000 jobs, 2,300 California biomedical companies, $2.7 billion in VC funding, $7 billion in NIH funding. But when you think about the California life sciences sector, what does it mean to you?
A: It means the difference between life and death, in many respects, because the drugs and medical devices that are being created are saving people’s lives and fundamentally transforming our ability to tackle the most serious and deadly diseases of our time. The life sciences sector is one of the strongest examples of the innovative spirit that is a trademark of our state. Every day, the brightest minds in our universities are unlocking scientific discoveries that will lead to companies of tomorrow and cures that were unimaginable only decades ago. This industry has become a shining example of all that is possible when we pair bright minds with a commitment to improving people’s lives. But this industry is not without its challenges. There is much we still need to do to ensure that American patients have access to these life-saving discoveries. I don’t want to say to my constituents, “You are going to get better care in Europe.” We have to be diligent and thorough, but we also have to be willing to provide compassionate care, too.
Q: How do you plan to reinstate science as a government priority at a time when Congress is proposing cuts across the board?
A: It is a priority. And it’s a priority for a vast number of Americans. You ask American voters whether or not they want to see science as a No. 1 priority and it would be overwhelmingly yes, particularly when someone is diagnosed with a very serious medical condition. So, how do you convey that to the majority right now in the House that believes that we should slash funding to the NIH, FDA & CDC? I think we all have to do a better job of conveying the link not only between federal funding for medical research and scientific progress, but also, economic growth. The statistics really speak for themselves. In 2010 alone, the $26.6 billion invested by taxpayers in NIH research grants generated $68 billion in new economic activity and supported nearly 490,000 public and private sector jobs, representing a 150 percent single-year return on public investment. This isn’t just about science and saving lives, this is about supporting our economic growth and recovery. Cutting funding for these agencies isn’t just bad for our health as a nation, it’s bad economics.
There is also much we can do to streamline the FDA approval process, while still being thorough, and creating the pathways for companies to succeed. I make a point of visiting life science companies in my district, easily three or four a month. These companies are doing such remarkable work. Their work will potentially reduce the cost of healthcare because they are creating a smarter, more efficient healthcare system through their innovative advances. For example, we know that chemotherapy does not work on 80 percent of tumors, and, therefore, most patients would either be just as well off without that treatment altogether or benefit more from an alternative medical option. But even though we have this information, we still spend $80 billion each year on cancer therapies. This isn’t just about money, this is about sparing patients a horrific experience to try and stay alive. Part of our job is to convey that personalized medicine is not an add-on to healthcare. It is a refinement of providing healthcare to patients so that we are not administering certain therapies to people that are not going to work.
Further, I envision a system where this wasted money is redirected to research that will result in additional treatment options tomorrow so chemotherapy isn’t their only recourse.
Q: You have championed many bills to support biomedical research funding, including SBIR and STTR grants that promote entrepreneurship. Talk about the importance of these to you.
A: I think these grants give fledging companies an opportunity to survive, and, oftentimes, to thrive. It advances our knowledge base and the science that allows us to then build the next generation of life sciences companies with new discoveries that are going to improve the quality of life.
I oftentimes tell people about the meeting of a venture capitalist, Bob Swanson, and Herb Boyer, a UCSF professor. It was a quintessential San Francisco story – two guys drinking beers at Perry’s. At the end of a three-hour meeting, they didn’t just shake hands and found a company; they founded an industry with hundreds of thousands of employees in this region. So, why wouldn’t we want to promote more relationships like that which might just create the newest industry that’s going to improve our health?
Q: San Mateo County received $75 million in stimulus funds from HHS. Much of the money went to organizations including SRI International, Applied Biosystems, Epitomics and others. Have these projects lived up to their potential?
A: Actually, San Mateo County probably received a great deal more because stimulus funds also supported our public health system and UCSF collaborations with businesses in this county. To be honest, I’m not familiar with the outcome of the grants that are mentioned in the question but I can say this about grants for science in general: It’s almost always money put to good use. The returns on the investment almost always reverberate across many years, if not decades. For example, there are people at UCSF whose surgeries are going to be much more precise because the PET machine now exists. As I visit life science companies throughout my district, I am frequently told that SBIR grants were the source of a lot of development funding for new tests and treatments that have moved forward in this county, and from here to the four corners of the world. SBIR got a big boost through the stimulus bill. In sum, if you give a genius a dollar, it’s likely she’ll turn it into at least two dollars of value for taxpayers. The challenge is to recognize that the lead times are long, the path to commercialization too arduous in many instances, and the commitment of Congress to predictable funding weak. Rather than asking if the projects live up to their potential, perhaps we should ask if we do ourselves any favors by shortchanging human genius.
Q: You heard a lot over the past couple years about the issues of consistency and unpredictability at the FDA. You communicated with the FDA and helped convey dialogue with the industry’s thought leaders to discuss how we can address those issues while also maintaining the high standards of safety that the public expects and deserves. How do we ensure that that dialogue continues and that those improvements are implemented?
A: We need to set high expectations of our members of Congress to keep engaged with the FDA and create opportunities for the FDA and the life sciences industry to interact. Safety and efficacy are essential, but the process required to receive those results should also be predictable. The last thing we want is for the industry to come to a screeching halt. PDUFA and MDUFA were great bipartisan efforts this year. Vigilance is absolutely key to making sure that improvements at the FDA continue, we cannot afford to take our eye off the ball. I can guarantee you that Congresswoman Anna Eshoo and I will be monitoring the relationship between FDA and the life science companies for years to come.
Q: What are you most proud of as a Bay Area native and graduate of two UC campuses?
A: I am so grateful that I was the beneficiary of advanced education at two UC campuses that were affordable. Unfortunately, we can’t say that today. My education at UC Hastings College of Law cost me $700 a year. If you account for cost of living, it should cost about $2,700 a year. The average Hastings student right now is paying $47,000 a year. We have made it unaffordable to get the kind of education I got 40 years ago. Likewise, if advanced degrees in scientific fields become prohibitively expensive at our state universities we are going to have a serious problem producing the brain trust that has historically created the life science companies that call our state home. I think we have a huge responsibility to turn this trend around.
CHI-Advancing California biomedical research and innovation