Jordan Green wanted to help people with Lou Gerhig’s disease.
Michelle Hughes wanted to help babies with hearing disorders.
Vimla and Hamid Band wanted to help other scientists study cancer stem cells in leukemia.
These and other scientists are pursuing their medical research in Nebraska because of a program that, over the past nine years, has generated nearly $1 billion in funding, according to a new economic study released Wednesday.
Since 2002, medical researchers have turned $106 million from a court settlement with tobacco companies into $959 million in health research funding, the study found. Using the settlement as seed money, the scientists obtained an additional $853 million from other sources — more than $8 for every dollar from the tobacco money.
The funding supports nearly 1,800 jobs, the study showed, and as it rippled through the state’s economy over the nine years had an economic impact of $2.2 billion and generated $98 million in state and local tax revenue.
University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the N.U. Medical Center, Creighton University and the Boys Town National Research Hospital formed a consortium to receive the tobacco settlement money and carry out the research. Those groups commissioned the study, conducted by Creighton economist Ernie Goss.
Scientists receiving the money tackled hearing disorders, viruses, nerve malfunctions, infections, toxic fungi, youth behavior problems, cancer and other diseases and disorders. Researchers received 94 patents from their work during the nine years, the consortium said in a press release.
Goss said jobs created by the funds pay an average of $45,000 a year, about 23 percent more than the state’s average salary.
His estimates of economic impact, jobs and taxes were based on economic models and the amounts of money received by the research institutions.
Nearly all the money was new to the state because little of it came from Nebraskans, Goss said.
The $106 million resulted from a national settlement in 1998 between the four largest tobacco companies and 46 states, including Nebraska. As part of the settlement, the states agreed to drop lawsuits accusing the companies of causing high Medicaid expenses to treat smoking-related diseases.
In 2001 the Nebraska Legislature created the Nebraska Tobacco Settlement Biomedical Research Fund to dispense the state’s share of the money, projected at $1.2 billion over 25 years. The fund began by awarding $10 million a year, which increased to $12 million in 2006 and $14 million in 2008.
Michael Zeleny, assistant vice chancellor for research at UNL, said few states used their tobacco settlements to set up long-term funds for medical research. Managed properly, he said, the settlement should generate research dollars in Nebraska for decades.
“It’s all about improving the quality of life for Nebraskans and beyond,” he said. “It’s a very long-term proposition. Basic research leads to applied research, inventions and cures.”
Zeleny said the four research institutions have worked well together, dividing up the money to start and support effective research programs and hiring the right people. “We’ve experienced nothing but very positive collaborations.”
Tom Murray, associate vice president for health sciences research at Creighton, said the funds are important to his institution.
“The tobacco settlement funds have allowed us to recruit and retain highly productive faculty that are making important discoveries that are improving human health,” he said.
Some of the research is starting to reach clinical stages where it can help people, he said. For example, Janee Gelineau-van Waes is looking into a link between birth defects and contaminated tortillas and other corn-based food products.
Recruiting and retaining such faculty members is a “brain gain” for Nebraska, said Murray, who came to Creighton from the University of Georgia.
“I was very impressed with how progressive the state of Nebraska was with the use of their tobacco settlement funds,” he said. “In my opinion they took a very enlightened approach.”
Jordan Green, now a UNL researcher, said the tobacco money was part of the grant package that brought him to Lincoln from the University of Wisconsin. His preliminary work with speech problems among people with Lou Gehrig’s disease led to a National Institutes of Health grant and other support, totaling $4.3 million.
“You can’t apply for large grant awards unless you have pilot data to show that your idea has some merit and is likely to produce some good results,” Green said.
His group has published dozens of papers, written chapters in scientific books and given presentations at scientific conferences.
“We’re competing with top universities to get NIH funds,” Green said. “They have incredible resources. There’s no way we can compete with those monies unless we also have some resources.”
Michelle Hughes came from University of Iowa to the Boys Town National Research Hospital in 2003. She hired research assistants, bought equipment and has won grants totaling $1.2 million.
Her work examines how auditory nerves respond to cochlear implant equipment, so it works more effectively, especially in babies and young children.
She no longer receives tobacco settlement money.
“That’s the whole point of the tobacco settlement money, to bring in new scientists and launch their own independent careers,” Hughes said. “It’s sort of like training wheels. You want to get off that and get extramural funding.”
Rodney Lusk, director of the hospital’s cochlear implant center, said a cochlear implant can have a greater impact on a person’s life than almost any other medical intervention, but without extensive follow-up and affordable care, patients may not fully benefit.
“The bottom line is, Michelle wouldn’t have been here had it not been for the tobacco money,” Lusk said. “What we’re working on probably wouldn’t be happening.”
The tobacco settlement money was “critical to our decision to come to UNMC,” said Hamid Band, who with his wife, Vimla, came to Omaha from Northwestern University.
“It allowed us to have a vision that we could establish a program that would otherwise have been difficult.”
The Bands have won $8 million in other grants to support their team of 14 researchers, whose work also has implications for treating breast and lung cancer. It’s ironic that money from tobacco companies helps scientists battle cancer, Band said.
“In some way it’s a kind of restitution,” he said. “I wish we didn’t have to rely on this kind of funding. It would be better if our society had a better way of funding research. But we need every dollar.”
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