(The Center Square) – Administrators, scientists and politicians praised U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt on Tuesday for years of securing medical research funding while dedicating the NextGen Precision Health facility in his name on the University of Missouri-Columbia campus.
“This is going to be a place where discoveries happen,” said Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health. “This is going to be a place that focuses on health, but also on hope – hope you’re going to give to people who don't even know we're having this ceremony and may in a year or two, or a decade from now, have their lives saved by the work that goes on in this building.”
The $221 million facility has 265,000 square feet for collaboration among researchers, clinicians and industry representatives with the latest scientific resources. Its location on the University Hospital campus provides a bench-to-bedside approach where researchers and medical doctors can quickly and easily work together to better diagnose and treat illness.
“Things will happen here that will impact people all over the world because of what the university committed itself to,” said Blunt, 71, a two-term Republican from southwest Missouri who was elected seven times to the U.S. House of Representatives. “It will happen in ways that wouldn’t have happened otherwise and I’m grateful for that.”
Blunt was praised for his leadership in increasing NIH funding by 43% during the last six years. Collins praised both Blunt and Sen. Lamar Alexander for $1.5 billion to fund a “Shark Tank” style approach to rapidly develop COVID-19 testing in 2020.
“There are about two million tests being done today as a result of that process,” Collins said. “If you go to the drug store and say, 'I’d like a home test' and you pick one off the shelf… it’s because of Sen. Blunt and Alexander and the vision they had. Had it not been for that anticipatory vision, we would be in a very different place than where we are now.”
Republican Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe said the research facility will contribute billions to Missouri’s economy during the next 25 years, but emphasized the importance to citizens throughout the state.
“This is not only about urban health, it's about rural health,” said Kehoe. “It's for people who need access to help. Some in the audience with us today with very rare conditions, they never had hope before now. This building represents hope. That’s the real return on investment. It’s the lives of all of our future citizens that will stand on our shoulders just like we stood on the shoulders of the people for us.”
Blunt highlighted how decades of NIH research led to rapid development of Messenger RNA vaccines for COVID-19. Unlike a live vaccine with an infectious element to bolster immune systems, the Messenger RNA teaches cells how to make a protein that triggers an immune response.
“All were huge breakthroughs,” Blunt said. “In fact, generally, if there’s a COVID-19-like variant in the future, maybe within 60 or 90 days you could have a vaccine – not in three years as we would have expected two years ago or the nine months we miraculously saw happen with an intense effort to get this done. Within a few weeks, we can identify the marker, figure out what to do about it, and make it available so people could immediately start that personal fight.”
When Blunt estimated NIH funding at the University of Missouri increased approximately 70% in the past few years, president Mun Choi, seated behind him, motioned upward with his thumb repeatedly.
“I always make it a point not to correct the Senator, but since he’s retiring, maybe I’ll give it a try,” Choi said. “Senator Blunt’s contributions to NIH research funding has been phenomenal. During the past five years, this university, despite the trials and tribulations they faced, our phase one federal research proposals grew by 88%.”