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Warning: Proposed Cuts in New House Bill Could Be Devastating for Cancer Research

Eastman, Peggy

doi: 10.1097/01.COT.0000397980.23159.88

WASHINGTON, DC—With Congress actively trying to pare down domestic spending, funding for cancer research is at risk, said the speakers here at a news briefing at the National Press Club. The news conference was held shortly before the release of the latest “Annual Report to the Nation on the Status of Cancer,” which shows a continuing decline in the death rate from all cancers from 2003 to 2007, the most recent statistical period available for analysis.

HR 1, the funding bill passed by the US House of Representatives for the remainder of fiscal year 2011, would cut the National Institutes of Health budget by 5.2% and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention budget by 21%.

“This is not acceptable; this will cause lives to be lost,” said John R. Seffrin, PhD, CEO of the American Cancer Society and the ACS's Cancer Action Network (ACS CAN).

“This isn't a political issue; this is not the time to back down,” added Lance Armstrong. According to a new ACS CAN survey, a majority of the American public opposes cuts in funding for cancer research (see box).

The survey found that the House bill could result in the following:

  • One-third of all Phase III cancer clinical trials could be eliminated.
  • The National Cancer Institute would fund 60% fewer new and competing research grants than it did last year.
  • A study examining the long-term effects of CT scans on pediatric patients, especially the risk for radiation-related cancer, could be curtailed.
  • Transdisciplinary Research in Energetics and Cancer Initiative, a research program studying the relationship between obesity and cancer, could be eliminated.

In addition, a 10% cut in the CDC budget for the National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program would result in 40,000 fewer underserved women being screened, and an 11% cut to the Colorectal Cancer Control Program could result in three out of 25 state screening programs being cut.

Speakers stressed that with recent leaps forward in understanding cancer at the molecular level, this is not the time to cut funding for cancer research: “We're here today at a time of enormous opportunity,” said Dr. Seffrin. “We're now saving 350 more lives per day, every day, than in 1991.”

Pointing out that the nation's investment in biomedical research was responsible for unlocking the secrets of the human genome, Dr. Seffrin added, “We could be saving 1,000 lives per day.” But, he said, instead of seeing the opportunity, Congress is proposing “a major setback in the fight against cancer.”

NIH Director Francis Collins, MD, PhD, one of the scientists who decoded the human genome, emphasized that the nation's investment in cancer research “has led us to a very exciting place,” and that today's scientific advances “are truly unprecedented…. Cancer is a disease of DNA; it's a disease of the genome.”

Today, he said, scientists have the technology in hand to be able to determine “why a good cell goes bad.” Dr. Collins said that in 1971, when President Nixon declared war on cancer, scientists did not have the tools or insights about cancer they have today. “This is not 1971,” he said. “The foundational information is now in our hands.”

The NIH director stressed that in order to be able to capitalize on new scientific knowledge, including genetics, there must be a sustained funding source. “This is a long road. It's not a hundred yard dash; it's a marathon.”

According to NIH, it funded more than $22 billion in nearly 53,000 research grants in every state and virtually every US Congressional district in 2010 alone.

ACS CAN generally aligns itself with the Obama administration's budget, which calls for a 2.4% increase for NIH in fiscal year 2012. Dr. Collins said that the NIH budget is basically about where it was in 2001, after inflation and other factors related to the rising costs of biomedical research have been taken into account. “We've basically gained no ground,” he said.

Asked by OT how seriously funding for cancer research is threatened by the House bill, given that the Senate is unlikely to go along with the Republican-dominated House and President Obama is unlikely to sign off on Draconian cuts for biomedical research, ACS CAN President Christopher W. Hansen said that in a normal year, HR 1 would not seem so threatening. But, he said, this is not a normal year because of major concerns about the huge federal deficit.

“I think the federal debt ceiling really confuses the issue,” said Mr. Hansen.

Dr. Seffrin added, “At some point this country will have a budget. You'd better be sure we're concerned about a 5.2% cut in the House.” He told OT later that with an issue as important as NIH and NCI funding, Congress needs to be given a warning: “There's a price to be paid for decisions that are made.” He also pointed out that when budget negotiations ensue, a line in the sand on cancer research funding must be drawn.

Asked by OT how proposed budget cuts for cancer research would affect the revamping of the cancer clinical trials process now in process, Dr. Collins said, “[NCI Director] Harold Varmus has taken this on as one of his highest priorities.” Dr. Collins said that the impact of legislation eliminating one-third of all Phase III clinical trials on cancer would be devastating for the clinical trials system.

“I stand here…as someone who has been in the trenches,” said Mr. Armstrong, founder of LIVESTRONG/The Lance Armstrong Foundation. “Meanwhile, my good friend Elizabeth Edwards [who died of breast cancer] is not here.”

Mr. Armstrong, who called a commitment to cancer research funding “a moral and ethical issue,” said he is personally very hopeful about having Dr. Varmus (a former NIH Director) at the helm of the NCI because “he's an old friend of ours.” Mr. Armstrong added, “We are in this for the long haul.”

Former NCI clinical trial participant Tracy Elliman of Kennett Square, Pennsylvania described how recent genetic advances in understanding breast cancer—specifically learning that she had a BRCA1 mutation—led her to undergo prophylactic mastectomy and oophorectomy surgery to prevent cancer.

Ms. Elliman, mother of two young children, including a daughter, described how her grandmother and mother were both diagnosed with breast cancer. Her grandmother did not live five years, but her mother—also a clinical trial participant—is alive today. Ms. Elliman put in a strong plea for more cancer research funding. “If we don't do anything, complacency is going to kill us,” she said.

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New Survey: American Public Opposes Cuts in Cancer Research Funding

According to the new ACS CAN survey of 1,050 US adults conducted in March 2011, a total of 77% of respondents oppose cuts in cancer research funding as one way to reduce federal spending. And 76% oppose cutting funding for cancer prevention programs as one way to reduce federal spending.

Also, 81% oppose cuts that would eliminate one-third of Phase III cancer clinical trials; 81% oppose cuts that would mean that 40,000 fewer women would get breast and cervical cancer screenings; and 79% oppose cuts that would erode research to develop diagnostic tools for the cancers that currently lack accurate screening tests.

© 2011 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.
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