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Floridians support medical research spending

Surprise, surprise. Floridians, we of the knee replacements, Botox injections and cholesterol-lowering drugs, are keen on medical research.

In fact, 96 percent of Floridians contacted in a recent survey believe the state should lead in such life-improving research.

Another 77 percent support the state giving financial aid to recruit research labs and 59 percent would pay a dollar a week more in taxes toward such a goal.

The survey of 800 adults was paid for by two interested parties: the nonprofit medical advocacy group Research America and Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis.

But since Gov. Jeb Bush and the Florida Legislature are set to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in a bid to make the state a life sciences leader, public sentiment can hardly be ignored.

The two biggest ventures announced so far are Scripps Research Institute in Palm Beach County and the Burnham Institute for Medical Research in Orlando. Both are devoted to accelerating therapies to combat such diseases as cancer.

"There's no better return than supporting medical research," Dr. Elias Zerhouni, head of the National Institutes of Health, said Tuesday in Tampa at the presentation of the poll results.

For a state so willing to splurge on scientific exploration, most surveyed couldn't name a single medical research organization in the state. Five percent pegged H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center, and 9 percent named the University of Florida.

The poll also captured public optimism about medical breakthroughs. A majority opined that diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, cancer and heart disease would be cured within 20 years. Those views brought skeptical chuckles from some of the physicians, scientists and academics who gathered over lunch to hear the survey results.

One host of Tuesday's gathering was the University of South Florida, which is transforming itself into a bigger player in the field. Earlier this month, USF captured an $8-million state grant to create a "center of excellence" in biotechnology.

Zerhouni, appointed in 2002 by President Bush to head the $28-billion NIH research agency, predicted USF and other research organizations would increasingly focus on chronic illnesses tied to aging.

The hunt will be less for magic bullets to cure such ailments as cancer and more for preventative, gene-based therapies to head off the diseases before they strike.

"If we practice medicine 20 years from now like we do today, we will have lost the game," Zerhouni said.

James Thorner can be reached at (813) 226-3313 or thorner@sptimes.com

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