The Not-So-Small Price for Scientific Research

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From the series Science Through Unpolished Glass

The Not-So-Small Price for Scientific Research
By Brian Leung
Brian is a PhD student in the USC Neuroscience program

These past few weeks, every news organization and social media website has been posting about the discourse happening in Washington DC and the employees affected by the shut down. To go off on a tangent, I have friends who are in science who are being funded by the NIH and NSF whose labs had to be shut down because of the government.

This lab that studies soil chemistry and the co-habitation of many microorganisms, it’s implications for sustainability and how understanding the fundamental building blocks of agriculture can influence human health. Yes, it’s not about drugs and disease, but everything in science is related. Although some science headlines mentioned NASA and the NIH, not very many talked about the nitty-gritty details and the exorbitant price to maintain your typical biomedical laboratory. With that in mind, let me give you a sense for how much biomedical research costs per scientist.

Let’s ask the first question: what goes into biomedical research? Off the top of your head, you might say things like: the drug, animals, animal food, veterinary care, chemicals, and supplies.

So how much do drugs cost?
Let’s go to this drug LY-364947 from Sigma Aldrich (L6293-25MG) and order a gram of this drug. They sell this drug in quantities of 25mg priced at $531.63. Now multiply that by 40 to get 1 gram of this drug, we get $21,265.20! This doesn’t even include shipping and tax! How much does 1 gram look like? Imagine your thumbnail covered in a pile of salt. That’s roughly how a gram looks like. 


Animal care & food:
Let’s continue using this hypothetical scenario. We want to know whether this drug, LY-364947 actually is beneficial. Let’s use adult rats (12 months) to get an estimate for how much animals cost. If we have 15 animals that get the drug and 15 animals that don’t get the drug, then there are a total of 30 animals. If we need to raise these animals to become old enough to receive this drug from birth to experimentation date and the price to raise one animal is $.45 per day, then it would cost: 30 animals x $.45 x 365 days = $4,927.50! This doesn’t even include the price of the vets, the antibiotics for the sick rats, and other overhead costs. What’s even crazier is that scientists juggle more than 2 to 3 projects simultaneously! We are now looking at $14,782.50!

Chemicals and supplies:
Chemicals and supplies can range and vary depending on the need and the type of project. For example some antibodies (aka fluorescent dyes and stains) that are used can range from $300 to $1,800! These antibodies are used to generate pictures like this:

(reference: Breuning, J., Gate, D., et al.)

Also, chemicals, supplies, and other resources we see on CSI don’t come cheap. Typically, each researcher may spend an average of $1,250 per month on supplies. If we multiply that by 12 months, we get $15,000!

So what’s the point of talking about all these numbers? Well, during the shut down, scientists couldn’t go to work. If we continue using our hypothetical example, animals that need the drug treatment did not get the drug, then the entire scientific study has been jeopardized. That means, the entire project would need to be re-done. Especially if these animals were already sick and needed this drug to be “cured,” the animal veterinarians on site would most likely sacrifice these animals and put them out of their pain. That also means, lost data and $51,047,20 lost! (Imagine if you were a grad student on this project. Well, there goes graduation, delayed by another year!) Now imagine how many clinical research labs at the NIH that are affected by this shut down… hundreds!

The price for how much money was wasted and invested in these projects is just astounding. To set up these experiments, it will probably take several more months to get things back in line. Now that the government is running again, rumor has it, several months from now, there may be another shut down. At this point, I don’t even want to imagine how much this will hinder the biomedical sciences in the US.