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Cancer Research Funding Key Issue Presidential Candidates Must Address

August 27, 2007

By Dr. David Johnson

When I began treating cancer patients 25 years ago, and when I was a cancer patient myself 10 years later, treatment options were limited. Doctors knew little about how cancer grows and spreads, hindering efforts to develop new therapies. Radical surgery to remove tumors was often the only approach, and chemotherapy and radiation treatments kept patients hospitalized for weeks at a time.

But in recent years, the situation has changed substantially. Over the past three decades, the nation has made cancer research a priority, and the investment is paying off. Two-thirds of patients are alive five years after being diagnosed, compared with just half in 1975. Overall, cancer deaths are decreasing for the first time in 70 years. Chemotherapy is now most often delivered in physician offices or hospital outpatient clinics, and side effects are fewer and more easily managed. For many cancers, there are significantly more options available.

In short, cancer is becoming more survivable. More than 10 million Americans who have faced a cancer diagnosis are alive today, compared to only 3 million in 1975. A look at the current crop of declared and prospective presidential candidates speaks volumes about how far we’ve come against a disease that few even discussed a generation ago: one has survived skin cancer, another prostate cancer; a third has lymphoma in remission; and the wife of fourth is active on the campaign trail while living with advanced breast cancer.

But much still needs to be done. This year, more than 1.4 million people in the

United States will be diagnosed with cancer, and 560,000 will die. Side effects are often still too debilitating, and many survivors live with the risk of recurrence or new cancers. For some cancer types, treatment options are still not particularly good. And far too few cancers are detected early, when cure is more achievable.

Still, we are in an era of extraordinary potential. A doubling of the National Institutes of Health budget from 1998 to 2003 has advanced scientific progress. As a result, treatment is becoming increasingly personalized, tailored to a tumor’s specific characteristics, and there is a growing pipeline of new discoveries waiting to be translated into tangible improvements in treatment and prevention.

Unfortunately, this recent investment is at risk of being squandered.  Since 2004, we have been in the midst of the longest sustained period of flat funding for cancer research in decades – in real dollars, the cancer research budget has actually fallen 12 percent over the past four years.

At Vanderbilt, we are seeing the effects of recent cuts firsthand. Solid, promising research that has passed a rigorous review process is not being funded at the rate it was just a few years ago. Some top-scoring grants are either not being funded at all or are so seriously underfunded that their potential can’t be realized.

Even worse is the effect funding cuts will have on a generation of young scientists. For example, one of Vanderbilt’s very talented young researchers recently received an outstanding rating on a key grant but was denied funding. She is understandably discouraged.  Will we lose this bright mind – and her energy and innovative new ideas – to a more stable field? Similar stories can be told at major cancer centers across the country.

Congress and the presidential candidates have some important decisions to make.  We cannot risk our momentum against this disease. Once gone, it will take years, if not decades, to rebuild. The erosion of the cancer research infrastructure, including the abandonment of careers in science by some of the brightest young minds, will have serious long-term consequences.

The good news is, a modest investment can get cancer research back on track. Right now, the federal budget for cancer research is the equivalent of just $16 per American per year, less than the average price of two movie tickets. (By comparison, we spend $226 per person per year on soft drinks.)  For just $1 more per American, Congress could boost the cancer research budget by nearly 7 percent in 2008, as many in the cancer community are urging. This annual increase would help reverse the effects of flat funding, keep pace with inflation, and maintain the nation’s world-class research infrastructure.

Biomedical research funding is one of the most important issues that Congress will address this year, and a critical issue in the upcoming presidential campaign. For an additional dollar for each person in the

United States, our leaders can help millions of people now living with the disease and millions more in the years to come. Can you imagine a better investment? 

Dr. David Johnson is deputy director of the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center, past-president of the American Society of Clinical Oncology and a member of the Livestrong Foundation board. He is also a lymphoma survivor and an internationally known expert in lung cancer.