With a mop of red hair and a spray of freckles across his cheeks, 11-year-old Louis Barrett could have stepped out of a Norman Rockwell painting. Instead, he's perched on the very forefront of medical science.

The Roseville boy is part of a small but potentially groundbreaking study at the University of Minnesota examining whether external magnetic stimulation of the brain can help paralyzed children regain function in their hands.

The 30-patient study is just one of hundreds across the country funded annually by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that seek to discover new drugs, medical devices and biologics treating often-devastating diseases and conditions.

But a study released Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) indicates that the rate of increase in funding for biomedical research in the United States has slowed since 2005. The level of funding from the NIH and industry -- the two key engines of research -- actually decreased slightly in 2008, when adjusted for inflation.

If the trend holds, it could have troubling implications for research-rich environments like the University of Minnesota and the Mayo Clinic, as well as the state's plethora of medical device companies.

In addition, the recession and the prospect of health reform in the United States have sharpened the debate over how research dollars are spent.

The study's lead author, Dr. E. Ray Dorsey of the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York, says the promise of new discoveries still captures the public imagination and enjoys strong support. Plus, he says, research itself can serve as a strong economic engine, creating highly coveted jobs.

But at the same time, policymakers understand that new technologies often spawn new costs. As a result, access to capital for innovative start-up drug, device and biotech companies focused on research has often dried up, and researchers are finding the competition for NIH grants especially fierce.

"It is very difficult for a small biotech company like us to get an NIH grant," said John Zenk, chief medical officer of Eden Prairie-based Humanetics Corp., which is developing a drug to treat Alzheimer's disease and another to protect against radiation exposure. "It's pretty rare for a company our size to get one."

The JAMA researchers used financial models to study trends dating back to 1994. Industry is the largest contributor to biomedical research, accounting for about 58 percent of all expenditures in 2007. The NIH was second, at 27 percent, followed by state and local governments and other federal sources, both at 5 percent, and private not-for-profit support, at 4 percent.

Pace of funding slows

Total funding for biomedical research increased from $75.5 billion in 2003 to $101.1 billion in 2007. From 1994 to 2003, funding increased at a compound annual growth rate of 7.8 percent, compared with 3.4 percent for 2003 to 2007, the study states.

The study notes that data for 2008 were available only from the NIH and industry (culled from securities filings); the total was $88.8 billion. The total from those sources for 2007 was $86.4 billion, or $90.2 billion when adjusted to 2008 dollars, the study states. The modest increase in funding was not accompanied by an increase in approvals for drugs or devices, the study states.

The brain study at the U, led by Dr. James Carey, director of the Program in Physical Therapy, attracted $1 million in NIH funding under the Obama administration's American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The legislation added $8.2 billion to the NIH's coffers; all told, 15 researchers at the U received more than $10.3 million in NIH grants through the stimulus program.

"You can apply 10 different times for [an NIH] grant before you get one," Carey said. "You just have to persevere. If the amount of funding is declining, you may have up-and-coming researchers who say, 'Why bother?''' This could thwart new and potentially ground-breaking discoveries, he said.

For Louis Barrett, a healthy member of the study's "control'' arm, the research has a different appeal: "I got to see my brain on an MRI. It was cool."

Janet Moore • 612-673-7752