BY PEGGY EASTMAN
WASHINGTON, DC -- The American Association for Cancer Research released its Cancer Progress Report 2012 at a news conference here, a report that simultaneously celebrates the accelerating momentum in cancer research and warns that the continuation of such momentum is at great risk without Congressional action to prevent budget cuts by the end of 2012.
Speaking at a news briefing at the National Press Club, AACR CEO Margaret Foti, PhD, said that progress against cancer continues to increase at a rapid pace, which has led to there now being 13.7 million US cancer survivors. Twelve of whom are featured in the new 96-page report, some of whom spoke at the briefing to emphasize the need for robust cancer research funding.
Foti, whose sister is an ovarian cancer survivor, decried the “grim reality” of budget cuts that “are looming ahead of us,” and said, “Such cuts would be devastating and would cause us to lose the momentum in cancer medicine and science.”
AACR President Frank McCormick, PhD, Director of the UCSF Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center and the chair of the AACR steering committee that wrote the report, agreed: “This is not a time to slow down,” he said.
He pointed to the approval of nine new oncology drugs in the past year and the approval of a drug for treating precancerous skin lesions as evidence of important recent research advances, and noted that many of the new drugs are far less toxic.
Precision Medicine, Immunotherapy, Epigenetics
He cited three especially fruitful areas for further research: (1) Precision (targeted) medicine, fueled by gene sequencing to discover cancer-driver genes; (2) immunotherapy; and (3) epigenetics, research at the cellular level.
The pending budget cuts would be a “major setback” in the hunt for more effective interventions at this promising time, he warned. The report contains a section called “On the Horizon,” which cites epigenetics, metabolomics, the microbiome, systems biology, nanotechnology and reducing cancer risk through behavior modification as future cutting-edge areas of cancer research.
‘Grim Reality of Sequestration’
The “grim reality” cited by Dr. Foti concerns sequestration, a budget mechanism created by Congress in the Budget Control Act of 2011 to force the government to make automatic, across-the-board funding cuts to reduce the large federal budget deficit.
Sequestration could be especially devastating for the National Institutes of Health and the National Cancer Institute. AACR data show that for the past 10 years NIH funding has essentially remained flat; when the rate of biomedical inflation is considered, AACR calculates that NIH has lost more than $6 billion, about 20 percent of its ability to support research. If sequestration is allowed to occur, warns the AACR, NIH would be forced to absorb another budget cut of eight percent on Jan. 2, 2013, potentially resulting in the loss of $2.4 billion and the awarding of 2,300 fewer grants in fiscal year 2013.
The AACR report calls on Congress to enact legislation this year to prevent sequestration by finding an alternative means to reduce the federal government’s budget deficit. AACR, which met with White House officials and members of Congress after the briefing to deliver the content of its new report, plans to send the report to all members of the House and Senate. AACR is asking its own members and the advocacy community to contact their elected representatives in Congress to ask them to work in a “constructive, bipartisan fashion” to prevent sequestration from occurring.
‘Mutual Suicide Pact’
Multiple myeloma survivor M. Robert Carr -- a former member of Congress from Michigan featured in the report who spoke at the briefing -- told OT that sequestration is “a mutual suicide pact” by both political parties. He said both parties need to compromise and work together to prevent sequestration’s dire effects. He added, “The cancer research community needs to find its voice; you don’t get there by trying to ask for the moon. We’ll get past this sequestration issue.”
ASCO, TNBCF, LUNGevity
ASCO President Sandra M. Swain, MD, Medical Director of the Washington Cancer Institute at MedStar Washington Hospital Center, warned that “cuts in research funding will hinder the tremendous progress being made in conquering cancer.”
Such cuts would be especially damaging to research on cancers that are difficult to treat, such as triple-negative breast cancer and lung cancer. The Triple Negative Breast Cancer Foundation commented that it strongly supports the new AACR report and plans to contact members of its advocacy community to urge legislators to find alternatives to sequestration budget cuts that would harm cancer research.
And the LUNGevity Foundation -- the largest US nonprofit organization focused on lung cancer -- also issued a statement that it strongly supports the new AACR report. LUNGevity Foundation President Andrea Stern Ferris told OT that the story of Monica Barlow -- a young ALK-positive lung cancer patient featured in the report who spoke at the briefing -- illustrates the need for accelerated research on lung cancer.
Barlow, Director of Public Relations for the Baltimore Orioles, was just 32 and a non-smoker with no family history of cancer when she was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer in September 2009. She said she has been taking crizotinib since Thanksgiving of 2010, and credits the drug with keeping her cancer under control and giving her a good quality of life.
‘Celebration of Cutting-Edge Science’
Asked by OT for comment on the AACR report, Kenneth C. Anderson, MD, Director of the LeBow Institute for Myeloma Therapeutics and the Jerome Lipper Multiple Myeloma Center at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, called the report “a celebration of how cutting-edge science is today transforming the way we treat cancer.”
Anderson, a member of AACR’s Science Policy and Legislative Affairs Committee and the steering committee that wrote the report, added that the report is also a “call to arms” that points out the losses “if we do not step up and make science count for patients and markedly improve patient outcomes.” He said he is especially worried about the impact of looming budget cuts on bright young investigators who will not enter the cancer research field without adequate funding support.
Anna D. Barker, PhD, Director of Transformative Healthcare Networks, Co-Director of the Complex Adaptive Systems Initiative, and Professor in the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University, also commended the new report. Barker, a former NCI official and, like Dr. Anderson, a member of AACR’s Science Policy and Legislative Affairs Committee and the steering committee that wrote the report, said, “I think it’s a state-of-the-art document.”
The report brings hope, she said, because today, due to research advances, “we’re saving lives that would have been unheard of” in the recent past. Even just five years ago, many of today’s stories of cancer survival would have been considered miracles, she said.