Washington – The Mayo Clinic, with military ties that stretch back to the Civil War, is making a push to more aggressively pursue a larger share of the $900 million-plus spent annually by the Pentagon on medical research.
The medical giant has opened a Department of Defense Medical Research Office in Rochester and hired McAllister & Quinn, a Washington, D.C.-based lobbying firm, to help procure more federal funding. Dr. Peter Amadio, medical director of Mayo's DOD Medical Research Office, said that while Mayo has some defense contracts, there's "an opportunity for us to do better."
Lobbyists introduced Mayo executives to high-ranking Pentagon brass and researchers in late January, to help "decrypt" the application process, Amadio said.
"There's a misconception that Mayo doesn't do research or doesn't do this kind of research," Amadio said. "We wanted to dispel that."
Federal records show that Mayo has reeled in tens of millions of dollars in military contracts over the past decade for work on projects ranging from battling bioterrorism to helping war-wounded amputees walk again.
In 2012 and 2013, the value of Mayo's defense contracts topped $31 million. Mayo officials declined to provide information on the number of contracts and the dollar amounts attached to each.
Some funding has faded
Mayo's push comes at a time when traditional wellsprings of federal funding for medical research have been drying up.
In fiscal 2013, the clinic's state and federal research funding dipped nearly 6 percent as competition sharpened for grants from the National Institutes of Health, by far the nation's top supplier of medical research funding.
Federal investment in biomedical research has decreased every year since 2003 when adjusted for inflation.
That has left scientists nationwide competing for a dwindling pile of dollars.
To land more Pentagon funding, Mayo must adapt to different demands.
National Institutes of Health projects often are initiated by researchers, who make pitches for funding. Military contracts are different. The Department of Defense determines what it wants accomplished, then seeks out institutions that can achieve the goal.
Battlefield and beyond
Mayo isn't the only institution in the state vying for armed forces research funding. Since 2008, the University of Minnesota has taken on $15 million in DOD-funded medical research projects.
Many colleges have departments or offices dedicated to work on military medical issues.
Mayo is among a number of non-academic institutions taking the same approach, said Pentagon spokeswoman Lt. Col. Catherine Wilkinson.
Partnering with "agencies, academia and industry make possible the fullest leverage of the intellectual capital within the research and development community," said Terry Rauch, the Department of Defense health affairs director of medical research.
The Pentagon funds projects for all branches of the military, including the Office of Naval Research, the Army Research Office and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research.
Mayo's ties to the armed forces date back more than a century.
During World War I, the clinic opened field hospitals and developed mobile clinical laboratories, sending units to the western front in France. In World War II, it trained medical officers, fielded medical units to the Pacific and worked with the military to develop the in-flight oxygen mask, the pressurized flight suit and survival techniques for parachute jumps.
In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, amid mounting fears of bioterrorism, Mayo went to work creating a rapid response test for anthrax exposure that shortened the testing period from days to less than an hour.
The Pentagon now consults with Mayo on treatment for troops exposed to pollutants and chemicals in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Mayo also coordinates immunization schedules throughout the armed forces.
Mayo's collaborations with the Pentagon go beyond traditional research, and include a training simulator that prepares soon-to-be-deployed military medical personnel for combat duty.
Mayo's research also has applications beyond the battlefield, such as work on managing chronic pain and the aftermath of traumatic brain injury.
Corey Mitchell is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau. Twitter: @C_C_Mitchell