Getting to Lynda Bonewald's office requires navigating a maze of windowless corridors on an upper floor of the University of Missouri–Kansas City's School of Dentistry.
Past the door, her Hospital Hill work space is no place for the claustrophobic. It's an unassuming little room, out of proportion with Bonewald's status as one of the nation's better-regarded scientists in her field.
The splendidly named UMKC science researcher has made her career studying bones, earning particular acclaim with her inquiries into the osteocyte, a bone cell that, prior to her work, was thought to be almost without function. Bonewald's fellow researchers admonished her for wasting time on osteocytes.
She ignored those warnings.
"I pursued it anyway because I couldn't believe that cell wasn't important," Bonewald says. She has been at it since 1993, when she saw another researcher's image of the spaceship-shaped cell; over the past 20 years, she has helped prove that the cells are among the most important elements in human-bone biology.
These days, one of Bonewald's most important studies is the development of new bone cement for fixing broken limbs or securing prosthetics such as hip replacements. The bone cements that have been on the market for the past 40 years are toxic. Bonewald is chasing a safe replacement. If successful through clinical trials, the result of her work could represent a researcher's holy grail, a discovery that could improve lives and make millions.
And while the physical route to Bonewald's office is labyrinthine, federal research funding has found a clearer path to her doorstep, given the high regard for her work.
Last year, she received an $8.3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to study how bones and muscles relate to each other in order to find out why both lose mass as humans age.
She knows she's fortunate to get this help when political infighting and a broke federal government have pinched NIH grants. What has historically been a thick artery for research dollars has had its budget cut $1.7 billion since the passage of the Budget Control Act of 2011. Current NIH biomedical research is $4.7 billion less than 2003 funding levels, according to the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology.
"It's really disheartening to see what's happening to my colleagues," Bonewald says.
That's why Bonewald, a member of the Kansas City Area Life Sciences Institute, is among those lobbying Jackson County voters to pass a November 5 ballot measure to increase the sales tax by a half-cent.
Doing so would raise $800 million over 20 years to fund what's called "translational research," the type of work Bonewald does: building on basic research in order to find treatments that can be sold to patients. That revenue would go to a newly formed Jackson County Institute for Translational Medicine; half would then be administered for research at Children's Mercy Hospital, with most of the rest split evenly among St. Luke's Health System and UMKC.
Advocates for the tax say the steady, reliable stream of money it would generate could be parlayed into more research dollars from other sources and could lead to major medical-research breakthroughs in Jackson County. It could, they say, put this area on the research map at a level similar to Boston and San Diego.
But the proposal has some scratching their heads, unaccustomed to a measure that would direct sales tax away from its usual destinations, including public safety and badly needed infrastructure.
Sales tax in Kansas City is already among the highest in the Midwest, and it already disproportionately affects the poorest residents of one of the least wealthy counties in the metro, a place where nearly one in four people between the ages of 18 and 64 don't have access to health insurance. At those residents' expense, money from the tax increase would funnel into a speculative venture (medical research comes with no guarantees) and fund well-paid scientists.