Profiles of Progress: Members of Congress Fighting for Cures

Released: 2010

Senator Richard Shelby

When Senator Richard Shelby’s wife, Dr. Annette Shelby, was stricken with kidney failure from lupus, he faced the same kind of powerlessness that families across the country feel when a loved one is confronted with a difficult disease.

“Twenty-three years ago, after having been treated for lupus for years, my wife’s kidneys failed and we didn’t know what to do. We thought she was lost. We thought she was gone,” Sen. Shelby said.

Lupus is a chronic, autoimmune disease that can damage any part of the body, including skin, joints, and internal organs. Because the immune systems of lupus patients cannot tell the difference between healthy tissues and viruses, bacteria, germs and other foreign invaders, autoantibodies attack and destroy healthy tissue. These autoantibodies cause inflammation, pain, and damage in various parts of the body which can be debilitating and difficult to diagnose.1

“I believe that for every dollar we spend in biomedical research through NIH, through the states and through private organizations, we get a ten-fold return — and probably more than that. It’s the beginning. It’s catalyst for much more. I think you will see much more of that in the future.”

Dr. Shelby had undergone treatment for lupus locally, but now believed that the best care for her kidney failure could be found at a medical research university rather than a nearby hospital. To that end, Sen. Shelby reached out to the staff of the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) to treat Annette.

“We knew where we lived probably didn’t have the advanced capabilities necessary to deal with [such an intense treatment], so we turned to the University of Alabama at Birmingham,” said Sen. Shelby. “They had the doctors and nurses with the research expertise and experience to treat my wife. They revived her, they saved her. That’s when I realized what difference research hospitals can make.”

If not for the medical research staff at the university hospital, Sen. Shelby believes his wife’s treatment would not have been successful.

“This wouldn’t have happened in an ordinary hospital. This was an extraordinary feat by the extraordinary medical team at UAB’s teaching and research hospital,” Sen. Shelby said.

Sen. Shelby considers this first brush with an Alabama research hospital as an entry point to a larger, national issue: federal funding of biomedical research conducted at universities across the country.

“I saw firsthand what [research hospitals] could do for my family, for my wife, and what they’ve probably done for thousands of others. When I realized what UAB did to save my wife’s life at such an important time, I realized that they could save thousands of other people in my state of Alabama and across the nation, and also what cutting edge research teaching hospitals were doing nationwide. UAB is a lot like a lot of other teaching and research hospitals around the country,” said Sen. Shelby.

Since that day, Sen. Shelby has been a strong supporter of biomedical research, not just for personal reasons but for economic reasons as well. Sen. Shelby feels that biomedical research not only creates jobs, but also makes the US a competitive force internationally.

“I think [research] puts us at the cutting edge of biomedical technology and spawns so many jobs, industries and companies that we can’t even list them. And I think we’re just scratching the surface. We’ve learned so much in the last 10 years, even 5 years, even 2 years. Where are we going to be in 10 years, or 15 years? And a lot will be because of biomedical research.”

So how can we ensure that such scientific progress continues? Sen. Shelby believes “the future is bright, but the future must be funded.” Specifically, this means funding the National Institutes of Health (NIH). He continued, “I don’t think there’s an option of not funding; it’s what you fund and how you do it.”

These days, Annette Shelby is far from where she was 23 years ago. At a lupus fundraiser in 2004, Dr. Shelby said “I’m here tonight because of modern medicine, because of the support from my family, because of the grace of God.”

The experience of Sen. and Dr. Shelby is proof that biomedical research is a crucial part of our future well-being.

As Sen. Shelby plainly stated, “I believe that the funding of NIH and biomedical research and everything that’s auxiliary to that is not only an investment in our own people, our own families, our own communities — it’s an investment in mankind. Period.”