Giffords, Grijalva seek $10M for health care projects Building antivenin distribution system a priority

April 23, 2009
Tucson Citizen

With a little "seed money" from the federal government, Leslie Boyer hopes to shore up the country's "critically" low supply of antivenin and quickly distribute that lifesaving drug to health care providers nationwide.

Boyer heads the University of Arizona's Venom Immonochemistry, Pharmacology and Emergency Response (VIPER) Institute, which seeks $450,000 to begin creating a national distribution network for antivenin, a drug given to people suffering from bites from snakes, spiders and other insects and reptiles.

And U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., wants to help. Giffords is seeking federal funding for the institute's plan and several other health-related projects in the region.

Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., also will go to bat for several area health care projects.

Between them, they seek about $9.6 million for projects that include addressing environmental and health problems on the U.S.-Mexico border and purchasing high-tech beds for the neonatal intensive care unit at University Medical Center's Diamond Children's Medical Center.

Medical professionals in southern Arizona "have more experience in dealing with antivenin for snake bites and scorpion bites than anywhere in the U.S.," Boyer said Thursday. "We want to be able to share this with the country."

Drug companies balk at the high costs of manufacturing antivenins, Boyer said, and supplies dwindle every year.

The institute could change that by leveraging its relationships with zoos, drug companies and researchers, Boyer said.

Her goal would seem to fit the criteria Giffords uses to evaluate requests made to her for federal funding, according to Giffords spokesman C.J. Karamargin.

"She needs to have the case made by the requesting entity that this is a good thing for taxpayers," Karamargin said. "We vet it. Many projects do not make the cut."

Giffords, who represents the 8th Congressional District, seeks funding for eight health care-related projects.

Grijalva, who represents the 7th Congressional District, wants to fund five projects, including $1 million for the UA-based U.S.-Mexico Binational Center for Environmental Science and Toxicology.

That group tries to promote the shared use of technology and information to combat environmental and health problems along the border, said A. Jay Gandolfi, associate director of research and graduate studies at the UA College of Pharmacy.

Mexicans living along the border often get poor information about environmental problems that could affect their health, such as arsenic in their drinking water, Gandolfi said. The UA-based center tries to make the latest health information available to them and their health care providers.

The Diamond Children's Medical Center seeks $425,000 to help cover about a third of the cost to buy 30 specialty neonatal intensive care unit beds, according to Vicki Began, vice president for women, children and emergency services at UMC.

With the new beds, which will warm premature babies as well as isolate them from harmful germs, "we won't have to move kids back and forth," Began said. "It's the best of both worlds."

It could take until December for those seeking federal help to find out if their projects will get funds. On their Web sites, Giffords and Grijalva caution fund-seekers that most projects won't make the cut.