Fighting for Hematology: ASH Bridge Grants and Grassroots Advocacy

Clark Distelhorst, MD
Dr. Distelhorst is the Charles S. Britton II Professor of Hematology/Oncology at the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine.
Samir Parekh, MBBS
Dr. Parekh is an Associate Professor of Medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

After years of across-the-board funding cuts and steady budget declines, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) received a $2 billion increase in funding with the fiscal year (FY) 2017 budget, thanks to bipartisan support in Congress. However, as the FY2018 budget looms, the agency is again facing the possibility of drastic funding cuts. President Trump’s proposed FY2018 budget seeks to cut more than $7 billion (or 21%) from NIH’s current budget. These cuts would undo recent funding increases and have a profound impact on research across the country.

In 2012, the American Society of Hematology (ASH) launched its Bridge Grant program to help hematologists continue their critical blood disease research amid a desolate funding climate. This grant program supports ASH members whose R01 (or equivalent) grant proposals could not be funded by the NIH, despite earning high scores. As of November 2017, 92 researchers have received the awards. (See the SIDEBAR for more information about how you can advocate for hematology with ASH.)

Recipients receive a total of $150,000 over one year, providing short-term relief to help talented hematology investigators continue their critical work while obtaining additional data to augment their grant applications. Research projects supported by ASH’s latest bridge grants encompass a wide range of basic, clinical, and translational hematology research, from improving therapy for leukemia to using molecular targeting to treat iron deficiencies and enhancing the understanding of specific genomic instabilities.

ASH Clinical News asked some recent winners how dwindling funding has affected their careers and how the ASH Bridge Grant has helped.

Clark Distelhorst, MD

The ASH Bridge Grant is absolutely essential. My NIH grant application scored well, but not well enough to fall within the funding range. The bridge funding will enable me to continue my research while revising and resubmitting the grant application to NIH.

Because of the decreased funding environment, much of my research space and staff have been reduced; I have only one research assistant in my laboratory and can no longer train graduate students and post-doctoral fellows. Moreover, the morale of trainees is markedly lower, and the interest of many in research careers is diminished.

Without NIH research support my lab would close and I would be forced to discontinue research that is vital to our progress in treating a wide variety of hematologic malignancies and to our fundamental understanding of cancer.

Samir Parekh, MBBS

During my fellowship, I faced the clinical challenge of treating patients with incurable mantle cell lymphoma and realized that better treatment options are urgently needed for this disease. My project involves creating a unique mouse model to study the role of the SOX11 oncogene in mantle cell lymphoma, and developing small-molecule inhibitors for use in the clinic. We received encouraging reviews from the R01 study section in our initial submission. However, we needed one more year to further develop the mouse data and resubmit our grant.

To continue my research during that period, I applied for an ASH Bridge Grant and am grateful for ASH’s support. Thanks to the grant, we have a much stronger chance of getting R01 funding in the next cycle.

Biomedical researchers are facing a crisis at two levels: First, many physician-scientists are finding it harder to maintain labs and are moving to more stable or lucrative jobs in private practice or the pharmaceutical industry. Second, seeing their teachers struggle for funding makes it hard to motivate the next generation of trainees towards careers in science and academics, so fewer fellows are growing into academic or laboratory-based careers.

Most institutions provide seed funding to physician-scientists for a limited period. NIH funding is crucial to sustain a laboratory beyond this initial phase, as it supports overhead at academic institutions.

Like many other physician-scientists, I am at a critical juncture in my career where NIH funding is essential to keep my lab and continue a career in translational medicine in an academic setting.

In May, the Trump administration proposed cutting one in every five dollars to the NIH. If enacted, this would deal “a devastating blow to the advancement of medical science,” ASH President Kenneth Anderson, MD, said in a statement from the Society. “Not only does every dollar invested by NIH yield an estimated $8.38 in economic growth, but it also funds the research that leads to cures and therapies that keep Americans alive and healthy.”

Congress has continued to show broad, bipartisan support for NIH and both the House and Senate have proposed substantial increases in funding for NIH in FY 2018. Unfortunately, because of budget caps that are in place under the Budget Control Act of 2011, increases to important NIH programs may not be possible without significant cuts. ASH has expressed serious concern about the proposed FY2018 budget and continued spending caps, submitting statements to the House and Senate and mobilizing hematologists to contact their representatives to advocate for increased funding.

As the FY2018 budget process continues, all members of Congress, including those who support funding increases for NIH, need to hear from their constituents about the negative impact that cuts in funding have had (and may continue to have) on hematology research. There are many ways to deliver messages, ranging from calling your legislator’s office or writing a letter to meeting your Senators or Representative or attending a town hall meeting. To help constituents communicate with their policymakers, ASH developed an “Advocacy Toolkit,” a set of practical tools and actions you can take to communicate with your elected officials.

Visit for information about how you can help raise awareness about the need for increased funding or contact ASH Legislative Advocacy Manager Tracy Roades ( with any questions.