Cancer research funding: not just a bunch of self-serving whining

Our quick post yesterday cited Jonathan Alter's Newsweek essay this week on the sad state of cancer research funding in the context of Hamilton Jordan's recent death and Ted Kennedy's recent glioblastoma diagnosis. Like many areas of US federal research funding, cancer research support has been flat under the Bush administration and, in fact, declined in real dollars since 2004.

But when one hears a federally-funded researcher like me whining about this situation, one might think I am solely acting in a self-serving fashion, caring only about the preservation of my career and that of my trainees - the next generation of cancer researchers.

Well, Marilyn Chase has a short piece on page 3 of this morning's Wall Street Journal that raises another issue about cancer research funding that should concern all citizens and their loved ones with cancer:

Dr. Davidson, a professor of oncology at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, said the situation has led to a curtailment of research into breast cancer, melanoma, sarcoma and pediatric cancer.

"A hundred Phase I and Phase II clinical trials have been postponed, and the number of people able to participate in clinical trials has been reduced by 3,000,"
she said. [my emphasis]

For context, Orac and I had over two dozen collective posts last year on dichloroacetate or DCA, a simple chemical that may target a metabolic Achilles' heel in some but not all cancers. Because this agent is not protected by intellectual property, any development or clinical investigation of its promise relies on academic clinical trialists. Following their discovery of DCA's potential activity against human tumors grown in rodents, Canadian researchers at the University of Alberta have been raising money on their own to test DCA in people, to the point that two rural Alberta towns have conducted fundraisers for these trials. A recent search of, a US NIH-run registry of North American clinical trials, revealed that the Canadian trials are still the only ones planned despite intense public and media interest in this compound.

North American citizens depend on US cancer research funding for the preclinical and clinical investigation of new cancer drugs (yes, the US NIH supports a number of Canadian researchers). But as Dr Nancy Davidson's comments illustrate, the current funding environment has halted ongoing clinical trials and prevented still others from being launched.

For the naysayers who have remarked that the establishment has made no progress on cancer treatment since President Nixon declared his War On Cancer in 1971, here is another point that Marilyn Chase makes:

More than 1.4 million Americans will develop cancer this year, and about 560,000 are expected to die from the disease. There now are between 10 million and 11 million U.S. cancer survivors, up from about 3 million in the 1970s -- a measure of the gains that could be threatened.

There are stories all around the blogosphere about concerns that research funding issues are keeping trainees from getting jobs, requiring investigators to be increasingly creative in their strategies, or even preventing existing researchers from keeping their positions. These are, of course, real problems that also need to be addressed.

But let's put this all in the proper perspective, at least in my field of cancer research: the real losers here are the cancer patients grasping for their last straws.

More here on the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) - Orac is currently at the meeting in Chicago and we look forward to some updates from him.


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I can't read your subscriber-only link and therefore may be missing some important context, but isn't this decrease in clinical trials much more likely to be driven by the belt-tightening at pretty much every pharma than by government funding issues?

CC: DCA isn't going to be researched by any Pharma even if they have a surplus bigger than that recently thrown away by Michael Cullen. It's not patentable, therefore it's not profitable, and it becomes a public health problem. Which is why letting the market handle these things often doesn't work.

As one of the 10 to 11 million American cancer "survivors", I'm totally disgusted that not even lip service is paid to the idea of preventing cancer (except for smoking cessation). Despite the billions down all the research treatment rat holes, I see (as a pharmacist) greater numbers of patients, at increasingly younger ages, being diagnosed and treated. Is it chemicals in food, air, or water or genetics or other causes? Let's put our research billions there and find out.

wazza - As Abel Pharmboy has pointed out there is an alternative to Pharma funding - direct fund raising. I know one the Towns rasing money for DCA research is Peace River - what is the other one?

L. Roy - maybe the cause is simply more and better early diagnosis.

By Militant Agnostic (not verified) on 02 Jun 2008 #permalink