By Shawn Sullivan, Program Associate, FasterCures
“When I was growing up, cancer was a death sentence, and today my multiple myeloma is in remission because of a drug that was developed based on NIH-funded research,” said former nine-term U.S. Congressman M. Robert “Bob” Carr at a briefing earlier this month to unveil the American Association for Cancer Research’s Cancer Progress Report 2012.
While the focus of the briefing was on advancements, such as those that helped Carr, the looming shadow of the sequestration and its deep cuts to both the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and National Cancer Institute (NCI) budgets dominated much of the discussion. Jon Retzlaff, managing director of AACR’s Office of Science Policy and Government Affairs, pointed out that “while the federal government has made large and lasting commitments to cancer research in the past, we are concerned that this commitment has been eroding for some time and is about to suffer a massive blow.”
To put this in perspective, Douglas Lowy, M.D., deputy director of NCI, noted that federal support is critical if we are to keep vital programs moving. The National Lung Screening Trial (NLST), developed by NCI, is a prime example. In this trial, a pool of more than 50,000 patients with a high risk of developing lung cancer went through a randomized trial of helical computerized topography scanning multiple times a year for seven years. This new type of scan caused a 20 percent reduction in mortality over a control group that just received a chest X-ray.
Additionally, Lowy pointed out the limitations NCI is facing. The FY12 budget of NCI was $5.07 billion, but a majority of funds are already committed to ongoing activities. In FY12, the NCI funded fewer than 15 percent of new grant applications. This flat funding, along with the uncertainty regarding the sequester in particular and Congress’ questionable commitment to future research funding in general, is causing a lot of reluctance within NCI to start up new large-scale projects such as the NLST.
Anna Barker, Ph.D., director of Transformative Healthcare Networks at Arizona State University and the former deputy director of the NCI, highlighted much of the hope that is being generated because of exciting new developments, such as the relatively inexpensive cost of gene mapping. It really “is a new day in cancer research,” she said. She described an exciting and ambitious community research project sponsored by NCI and the National Human Genome Research Institute called The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA). TCGA aims to analyze the genomic changes in a large number of cancers to discover the spectrum of genes implicated in each form of cancer, and to learn how specific combinations of genes work together in the cancer. This information could then be used to suggest new uses for existing drugs and development of new drugs. A project of this size and scope can only be done by the federal government. While expensive, the cost of cancer itself is much more profound, costing this country approximately $250 billion per year, and expected to rise significantly in the coming years.
To take advantage of the exciting discoveries being made in cancer research and treatment, panelists agreed that it is crucial to increase our nation’s commitment to medical research funding.