President Obama wants to invest $33.1 billion in biomedical research. That’s a lot of money. But for 12 infants, biomedical research just meant the difference between blindness and sight. Another 20 million people stand to benefit.

Research and development (R&D) is a bargain. It’s also a U.S. priority. That means universities, businesses and government all invest in our common future.

A revolutionary new treatment

An international team led by researchers at the University of California, San Diego, recently used stem cells (cells that can become any type of specialized cell in the body) to heal the eyes of infants born with congenital cataracts.

The new approach, said study author Dr. Kang Zhang, may offer patients “safer and better treatment.” “An amazing step and breakthrough,” agreed Dr. Faruk Örge, a pediatric ophthalmologist who was not involved with the study. All agree the new procedure is less invasive and easier to perform than traditional cataract surgeries.

A patient undergoes cataract surgery in the Philippines. (© AP Images)
A patient undergoes cataract surgery in the Philippines. (© AP Images)

Twelve infants born with a congenital cataract condition received the experimental procedure, which used their own stem cells to repair the eye’s lens and eliminated the need for lens implants. The new treatment succeeded on all the infants.

The potential benefits are huge. The World Health Organization says about 20 million people worldwide experience blindness due to cataracts.

Investing in the future

American universities spend millions of dollars each year on scientific research, making significant investments in developing new medical advances. The leaders include Johns Hopkins University, the University of Michigan–Ann Arbor, and the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where life sciences receive over half the resources devoted to R&D.

The Obama Administration has prioritized government support of R&D, calling it “a powerful driver of new technology” and directing federal agencies to ensure that the results are made available “to other scientists, to the public, and to innovators who can translate them into the businesses and products that will improve all of our lives.”

U.S. government R&D priorities include: