By DR. ELLEN SIGAL, Ph.D.
Almost 25 years ago, I lost my sister to cancer. Since then, I’ve lost my mother, father, and other close family and friends to the disease.
As it is for so many others, my fight against cancer is a deeply personal cause. I felt strongly about the need to increase public awareness of the disease and to support research through increased scientific capacity across federal health agencies. I started Friends of Cancer Research (http://www.focr.org) 16 years ago with the goal of changing the way Washington and the research community work together.
Cancer is not a disease that lives in isolation; it touches the lives of millions of people in the U.S. and across the globe. It is also a complex disease that requires a multifaceted understanding of how the disease operates and how a patient reacts to the disease. Cancer research is critical to unlocking how cancer affects individual patients, why it affects those patients, and what treatments work best for certain types of patients.
The National Cancer Act of 1971 established a unique funding mechanism that allows the NCI to submit a budget proposal to the president directly, an “NCI Professional Judgment Budget.” In the four years following the passage of the National Cancer Act, funding for the National Cancer Institute tripled from $93 million to $270 million to support research grants and public awareness for prevention, detection, and treatment of the disease. Since then, funding has steadily increased for the NCI, allowing for the agency to grant funding for cutting-edge research and to create programs such as the NCI Experimental Therapeutics (NExT) program. NExT shares certain resources not readily available at most medical centers with outside researchers to reduce the drug development time frame.
As a result, cancer research has shifted from thinking of cancer as one disease to understanding that it is comprised of hundreds of different diseases. Additionally, we now understand how certain genetic markers can indicate a person’s ability to respond to certain treatments. This development of more “personalized” medicine is allowing for new targeted treatments to be developed that are beginning to really show great hope and promise for patients.
Accordingly, the survival rate for cancer has increased in almost all disease areas over the last 30 years, while mortality rates have dropped by 22% for men and 14% for women between 1990 and 2007. There are currently more than 12 million cancer survivors in the United States. Breast, prostate, and colorectal cancer have seen the greatest increase in survivorship among adults, and an estimated 67% of cancer survivors are still alive five years after their diagnosis. This number increases even more for childhood cancer survivors; approximately 75% of childhood cancer survivors are alive after 10 years.
Yet challenges still remain. The current funding environment for federal agencies that support cancer research like the NIH has decreased in the past two years, making it difficult to keep up with the most up-to-date technology or support a robust grant program. The number of research grants given by the NIH has dropped to a historic low, meaning potentially life-saving research is not being conducted and future generations of scientists are discouraged. The mandatory 7.8% funding cut set to go into effect in January 2013 is also particularly troubling; it would result in the loss of 2,300 grants from the NIH.
Organizations like Friends of Cancer Research (Friends) and Stand Up To Cancer strive to advance the most pressing needs of the cancer research community. Friends of Cancer Research brings together industry, academia, government, and patient groups to find real solutions for the most pressing needs of the cancer community. Among our many initiatives, each year, Friends hosts an annual Conference on Clinical Cancer Research, a forum which engages all stakeholders and has resulted in significant progress in how drugs are able to reach patients. Through cultural, regulatory and legislative actions, and a collaborative approach, Friends has improved the process to get safer and more effective treatments to patients sooner. Stand Up To Cancer has changed the landscape of cancer research, providing millions of dollars in direct funding to collaborative, multi-institutional scientific “Dream Teams” while awarding high-risk, high-reward Innovative Research Grants to scientists with the potential to revolutionize the field.
Beyond these organizations, there are so many ways to support cancer research. If you are a patient, you can take an active role by participating in clinical trials that are important to getting new treatments from bench to bedside. The first step is talking to your doctor about what your options are and what trials might be available and right for you and your family. You can also visit standup2cancer.org/clinical_trials. Both patients and non-patients can call their member of Congress. Tell them how important it is to continue to not only fund the National Institutes of Health and the National Cancer Institute but also the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Without a fully funded and scientifically rigorous FDA, new advances in cancer research will not get to patients quickly enough.
There have been many groundbreaking discoveries in the world of cancer care and treatment in the last 40 years, but there is much more that needs to be done to ultimately achieve the goal of eradicating cancer. It starts with getting everyone involved – scientists, physicians, patients, and the rest of the cancer community. With great momentum in science and innovation, there will continue to be significant discoveries in cancer research that should bring great hope to patients.
Dr. Ellen Sigal, Ph.D., is Chair and Founder of Friends of Cancer Research, a think tank and advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C. You can find her organization at http://www.focr.org and on Twitter @CancerResrch.