Friday, December 3, 2010

End Eczema's mission: please donate to the NEA for research

This past Thursday I spoke on the phone with Julie Block, president and CEO of the National Eczema Association, and Diane Dunn, the NEA's communications and program manager.

I thought that Julie and Diane's outlook was very similar to mine. Eczema is a disease that affects millions of people (in the U.S., 20% of children and 2% of adults, which probably means that 50 million people live with it in the home). It can drastically affect quality of life. It leaves a sufferer open to serious infections such as MRSA, and disqualifies them for military service.

And yet you hardly ever see eczema mentioned in the media. (Can you think of any blogs? Any celebrities?) You rarely, if ever, hear of any fundraising efforts for it. It is, despite being a disease of the skin--and we use the term "skin deep" for something that you have to look beyond to find the essence--virtually invisible.

This is probably because most of us cover it up. I know I do. Why would I want to expose an unsightly rash that reveals my lack of self-control? I wear long pants and shirts with collars and long sleeves. I go to the swimming pool only with great reluctance. People stare, sometimes. They hustle their babies away from your kids to avoid what looks like a contagious rash. We who live with it are ashamed; those who don't are ignorant.

The NEA was the first eczema patient advocacy organization I have heard of in my lifetime. I think they're amazing and they deserve our support. They are primarily dedicated to education and outreach; and this is good. We need to educate ourselves about the best therapies. We need to educate others so they understand. We need to exert pressure on our representatives in government so they direct federal research funding to eczema.

The NEA doesn't make a priority of research, and it can't be faulted. If you've got an annual budget of $500k and several salaries to pay, along with the travel expenses of a national association, you can't  make a significant investment in research. A single molecular biology laboratory, at any major university or institute--Johns Hopkins, U. of Washington, Stanford--runs on at least $1 million a year. A single graduate student costs $50,000 a year. Reagents, antibodies, experimental animals are terribly expensive. The responsibility for funding the research effort lies with the federal government, via the National Institutes of Health.

But there are ways in which grants on the order of $100,000 can make a difference. They can prime the pump; often, in academic research, to get money, you need to have money already, because many agencies will only deliver matching funds. And if you can show that someone believes in your project to the extent of handing over $100k, you can make a better case for why the NIH should give you $1 million. The NEA has seen this happen with grants to researchers Eric Simpson and Gil Yosipovitch.

Also, there is one crucial, oft-neglected zone called the "valley of death." Scientists may make a discovery, funded by the NIH, and this discovery may hold the potential to be a world-changing cure, but if it doesn't get translated into a product or service that can be delivered or manufactured by a commercial company, it stands virtually no chance of helping anyone in the real world. NIH funding drops off steeply after a discovery is made. And venture capitalists won't invest in a project or startup that hasn't shown a viable prototype or undergone clinical trials. The "valley of death" is the arid region between federal and venture funding where many promising ideas have met their end.

Proof-of-concept funding, in packages of $100k, can enable an academic scientist to fund a postdoctoral fellow for a year and buy equipment and supplies to run crucial experiments, build vital prototypes, and do the research to show that their technology has a market. Two examples of institutes that provide this type of funding are University College London Business and QB3, the California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences. In the U.S., proof-of-concept funding can enable a startup company to win a federal Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant that helps it get off the ground.

So: if the NEA were able to make several annual awards of about $50-100k, it could give eczema research leverage that would amplify federal funding and/or increase the rate at which practical cures emerge.

I believe in the NEA and so I am dedicating this blog to the purpose of raising $1 million for the NEA to devote to research. I'm hoping that people who are thus inspired to donate to the NEA will mention my blog to the NEA, so I can have some idea whether I'm getting close to my goal.

And ultimately, the real goal is to end eczema.

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