Since its opening as part of the Pine Bluff Arsenal in 1941, the National Center for Toxicological Research, or NCTR, in Jefferson County has been considered essential to the country.
That’s not the case during this partial federal government shutdown as the work there has gone undone for more than a month, and counting, as the political standoff continues in Washington.
In between are the 800,000 federal employees, who have now missed two paychecks, along with the 10,000 companies nationwide that do business with the federal government. And they haven’t been paid either.
It isn’t just money – it is the work that’s being done at places like NCTR and the research they do for the Food and Drug Administration.
Bryan Barnhouse, the Chief Operating Officer of the Arkansas Research Alliance, called NCTR’s work, “valuable” and that they “protect the public health of our nation.”
Barnhouse’s organization has a near decade old partnership with NCTR and they help to “organize and coordinate areas of potential collaboration with the state’s universities and institutions,” he says.
The NCTR was split off from the Pine Bluff Arsenal in 1971 and sits on an expansive campus of nearly 500 acres – the closest community is Jefferson. The NCTR is about 30 miles south of Little Rock and 20 miles north of Pine Bluff. They employ around 700 people with 400 of them being federal employees, with another 300 as contractors.
Barnhouse says 150 of those hold doctorates and “it is the largest federal laboratory in Arkansas and the only FDA center located outside the Washington, D.C. area.”
Among the things done there are determining “if food is safe for consumption and whether medical devices and pharmaceuticals are suitable for use in humans.”
And not just if human food is safe.
In 2007, household pets, dogs and cats, were getting sick, then dying. It was NCTR researchers who were called on to crack the case. They determined it was melamine, a protein added to pet food, that was the culprit. The researchers then “coordinated with other parts of FDA and was instrumental in finding and understanding this problem and eliminating the danger,” Barnhouse says.
For humans, it was NCTR researchers who took a look into Doxorubicin, a treatment for breast cancer that is sold as Adriamycin or Rubex.
“It can also be very toxic to the heart,” Barnhouse says. “NCTR ascertained that there are there certain genetic traits that make some people more prone to this toxicity than others and … it helped identify patients who are less likely to suffer heart damage and therefore can take advantage of this drug.”
Both examples were all part of NCTR’s mission to “conduct scientific research to generate data for FDA decision making” and develop tools and approaches for the FDA to use.
With only a skeleton crew of a couple dozen left behind at the NCTR, basic research isn’t being done, Barnhouse says.
“Continuity in scientific research is critical for consistent data,” he adds. “Any interruption in that research could be fatal to conclusions. … If the shutdown does not get resolved soon, then in addition to the human-personnel cost, any gaps in data that may develop could be difficult and costly to address.”
The shutdown, however, continues.