It’s time for Congress to reinvest in cancer research

By Julie M. Vose, MD, MBA | The Hill | November 27, 2015 | See Original Here

Research funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is the basis for the most important cancer breakthroughs of our time, but it is threatened by more than a decade of inadequate federal funding. Backing research on cancer, a disease that touches almost every American, should be a top priority as Congress will soon decide on how to allocate $25 billion in additional non-defense discretionary spending for fiscal year 2016.

Every cancer survivor is living proof that medical research saves lives, and this is not a time to reduce our investment in cancer research. As our population ages, cancer is expected to become the leading cause of death in the U.S. by 2030.

Over the past decade, federal funding for the National Cancer Institute (NCI) has decreased by 20 percent, once inflation is taken into account. These cutbacks are affecting our nation’s research enterprise, our scientific leadership in the world and, most importantly, people living with cancer. Promising research is going unfunded, new studies are being delayed or scaled back, and fewer cancer patients have access to clinical trials. In just the past four years, between 2010 and 2014, the number of patients enrolled in NCI’s clinical trial network decreased by almost 25 percent. The funding environment is so bleak that a growing number of cancer researchers are leaving the field altogether.

NIH has a particularly important and unique role to play as we accelerate the use of precision medicine to fight cancer. Precision medicine involves identifying unique molecular and genetic drivers of cancer and developing treatments that target them. This can result in more effective treatments with fewer side effects. One important discovery during my career has been pathway targeted agents such as imatinib for chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML) which targets the bcr-abl pathway and ibrutinib which targets the Bruton’s Tyrosine Kinase (BTK) pathway in chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) cells. Both of these directed agents are orally administered, have minimal side effects in most patients, and provide marked improvements in outcomes in these patient populations.

Only leadership and investment from the federal government can make precision medicine the norm. Some may assume that as public funding for cancer research wanes, the private sector will pick up the slack. But that simply isn’t the case. The NIH supports critical studies that the private sector has little incentive to conduct, such as basic research and trials comparing the effectiveness of already-available treatments, combining therapies developed by different companies, researching drugs for pediatric and rare cancers, and understanding the toxicity of the treatments. These and other NCI-funded studies yield essential insights that make the private sector’s cancer research, drug development and commercialization possible.

In the late 1990s, with bipartisan support, Congress voted to double the NIH budget over five years. The investment greatly accelerated the pace of scientific discovery. Now we need Congress to show that same kind of bold leadership. Providing NIH with $32 billion would make up for roughly three years of inflation, but we still have a long way to go. Congress can help NIH to recover from a decade of neglect by providing the highest possible increase in fiscal year 2016 funding for the NIH, including a proportional boost for the NCI. Our nation’s cancer researchers, doctors, and patients are relying on the federal government to drive the next generation of progress to save lives. With new resources, the NIH will be able to capitalize on the promise of precision medicine and other critical scientific opportunities and give new hope to all those affected by cancer.

Vose is president of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO). Founded in 1964, ASCO is the world’s leading professional organization representing physicians who care for people with cancer.