Scrimping On Cancer Research

Bush's cuts would roll back decades of progress and shut out promising scientists

By Geoffrey M. Wahl

"You have cancer." Nearly 1.5 million Americans will hear these sobering words this year. You may know some of these people, or you may be one of them. Cancer is no longer necessarily a death sentence, but about 1,500 Americans will die from the disease today—and a similar number tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow.

New treatments, cures, and preventive measures have arrived thanks to a decades-long commitment the American people and Congress have made to fighting cancer. The American Association for Cancer Research has been advancing the science for 100 years. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) have been funding cancer research for more than 80 years. President Richard M. Nixon declared a War on Cancer and signed the National Cancer Act in 1971, which raised the profile of the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and greatly increased its funding. And from 1998 to 2003, Congress doubled financial support for biomedical research overall, much of which bears on cancer.

But in a cataclysmic stroke of bad timing, funding for the NIH is being "undoubled." President George W. Bush's 2007 budget seeks $4.75 billion for the NCI, which is $40 million less than its current budget and $71 million less than it received in 2005. These sums may not seem large, but the trend toward funding cuts is devastating for cancer research, and patients will feel the effects. This winter, the NCI's Clinical Trials Cooperative Group Program was ordered to cut as many as 60% of new clinical trials. This translates into 3,000 patients who may be unable to enroll in a cooperative group clinical trial. You can't find new preventive agents or treatments without trials.

The budget cuts squeeze established researchers, but more important, they shut out new scientists. Five years ago, when federal funding was increasing, the NCI approved 1 in 5 promising research proposals. Today young investigators have only a 1 in 10 chance of having their projects funded—at lower levels than in years past. They look at their mentors and see senior scientists and professors who spend more time writing research grants than teaching students. Opting against a career-long fight for funding, many choose not to pursue cancer research. It takes nearly 20 years to train a lead investigator, so if we destroy our pipeline of talent, it will take decades to rebuild. We don't have that kind of time.

For one thing, we have an aging population to consider. Baby boomers will outlive all generations who preceded them. By 2030, 20% of the U.S. population will be over 65. We know that cancer is a disease of aging: The cellular changes that lead to many cancers don't happen overnight, but rather over time. As baby boomers reach their 60s and 70s, cancer will be right there waiting.

For a century we have invested in ideas and people to fight cancer. As a nation, we built an astonishing research enterprise that is paying off—just like a good business. There are more than 10 million cancer survivors alive today, and for the first time in history the number of Americans dying from the disease is declining. There were 3,014 fewer cancer deaths in 2004 than in 2003. Our $69 billion investment in the War on Cancer is returning billions in savings from decreased mortality. University of Chicago economists estimate a permanent 1% reduction in cancer mortality translates to nearly $500 billion in national wealth for current and future generations of Americans.

To continue this analogy, we made an investment and expended our sweat equity to build a thriving enterprise that delivers substantial return on investment with even more promising future dividends. With sustained funding, cancer research will advance so that one day people who are suffering will receive treatments tailored to their own cancers, based on their genetic markers. Or picture new therapeutic cancer vaccines that enlist the body's immune system to treat existing disease or prevent cancer from ever arising. What's more, the cancer drugs we develop are already helping to treat other illnesses, such as macular degeneration, a common cause of blindness. This is not hyperbole—it's today's reality. Continuing to increase funding levels is good business and a sound, prudent, and wise investment for the future.

Views expressed in Outside Shot are solely those of contributors.

Geoffrey M. Wahl is a professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies and former president of the American Association for Cancer Research.

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