Cancer researchers made a plea for more money Tuesday in a report that said flat funding for the National Institutes of Health is scaring off promising scientists.
The 85-page report paints a picture of success that could be jeopardized if the momentum isn’t maintained, and outlines many of the advances made since President Nixon signed the National Cancer Act of 1971.
“Unfortunately, the declining NIH and NCI (National Cancer Institute) budgets are creating an environment where researchers face numerous disincentives to continue or even enter into research careers in the first place,” the report from the American Association for Cancer Research reads. “These disincentives are resulting in a loss of taxpayer-funded training and are adversely affecting the nation’s ability to maintain an optimal workforce for cancer research and to generate innovative scientific ideas for future implementation.”
The report, signed by AACR immediate past president and Nobel Prize-winner Elizabeth Blackburn of the University of California San Francisco, AACR President Dr. Judy Garber of Harvard Medical School and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and two dozen other cancer researchers, says the NIH has lost 13 percent of its purchasing power over 8 years because of flat funding and inflation.
“In order to fulfill the extraordinary scientific and medical promise of cancer and biomedical research, the AACR respectfully recommends that Congress provide the NIH and NCI with annual budget increases of at least 5 percent above the biomedical inflation rate,” the report reads. “This level of sustained support will enable the future scientific advances needed to seize today’s scientific momentum, capitalize on prior investments in cancer research, save countless lives, and spur innovation and economic prosperity for our country and all of our citizens.”
The report makes the case that strong funding has paid off big. “We now understand in detail that cancer is complex at every level – ranging from populations to the very genes and molecules that drive a patient’s cancer,” it says. “It is, in fact, not a single disease, but more than 200 diseases – all of which have different causes and require different treatments.”
Better screening has helped patients survive because their tumors can be treated at an earlier stage. “As a result, the 5-year survival rates for cervical, breast, and prostate cancers are well over 90 percent, and mortality due to colorectal cancer continues to decline,” the report noted.
“As a result of our nation’s investments in cancer and biomedical research, about 12 million cancer survivors are alive in the U.S. today, and 15 percent of these cancer survivors were diagnosed 20 or more years ago.”
Government and corporate researchers have worked to create a whole new class of targeted drugs, which home in on a tumor’s specific mutations and kill cancer cells without causing the unpleasant and often deadly side effects of old-fashioned chemotherapy and radiation.
“There are now 32 Food and Drug Administration-approved drugs that target tumor cells with far fewer side effects. For example, the drug imatinib (Gleevec), which targets a specific chromosomal defect found in 95 percent of all chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML) patients, has transformed this disease from a death sentence into a chronic condition with a 5-year survival of 95 percent,” the report says.
Death rates from cancer plummeted by 22 percent for men between 1990 and 2007, and by 14 percent for women. “Today, more than 68 percent of adults are living 5 or more years after initial diagnosis, up from 50 percent in 1975,” it adds. Yet half of all men and one-third of all U.S. women will be diagnosed with cancer at some point, and it remains the No. 2 killer of Americans, after heart disease, taking 570,000 lives every year. “It is no wonder that a cancer diagnosis remains the worst fear of Americans as determined by an AACR survey conducted in 2000,” the report concludes.
This article appears in the September 20, 2011 edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.