health: Cancer researchers drive progress forward, need adequate funding to sustain momentum
Several years ago — before my life collided with science — my husband Alex and I were at a party where, at dinner, we happened to sit across from a scientist. On and on she chatted about her research in liver cancer.
Eventually, she got around to telling us that whatever she was looking for — it escapes me now — couldn't be found in the direction she and her group were looking.
"Isn't it fantastic," she asked, "that it only took four years to reach a dead end?"
At the time, I had no way of knowing, much less appreciating, that four years of persistence, followed by what I thought was failure, could send her on a different path, with new knowledge, that could lead to a new discovery.
A year or so later, I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. After standard treatments failed, I was rescued by a new treatment that came along in the nick of time. On the day that it was administered, I realized that it was the persistence and patience of scientists — just like the one we'd met at the party — that could give me a chance to live.
In the nine healthy years since, I've met a few other physician/researchers and scientists, and I've always been struck by their passion. A couple of weeks ago, I was lucky enough to see scientists hard at work in a real lab: that of Dr. Kojo Elenitoba-Johnson, professor of pathology and director of the Division of Translational Research and the Molecular Diagnostics Laboratory at U-M. I say lucky because we survivors rarely get to see real labs.
I was there only because a few photos for some reports that I'm producing on cancer were needed. (They'll begin airing on the PBS show A Wider World early in November, and Dr. Elenitoba-Johnson, along with several other U-M physicians, will discuss a variety of cancer topics.)
University of Michigan
University of Michigan
In the lab, Dr. Elenitoba-Johnson showed me actual lymphoma cells under a microsope, an eerie sight for someone whose own body was once full of them. Much to my surprise, they looked more like harmless beige stucco than the deadly cells that they were. I had a few choice words for them that I kept to myself then and aren't fit to print now.
I saw people working with tools and technology that I couldn't begin to understand, much less explain. But I can explain this: standing in that lab as a cancer survivor was like standing in a sacred place, enveloped by hope, because I know firsthand that the progress that's made in that lab could mean the difference between life and death for some who will soon hear those frightening words: you have cancer. I resisted the urge to throw my arms around every scientist to thank them for spending their lives making ours better.
But that's exactly what they do. With little recognition, they — and others like them — work day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year patiently and persistently unraveling the mysteries of cancer. They're the reason that many, like me, get to go on living our lives and loving our families after cancer.
There are, in fact, more than 12 million survivors alive today. We're living, loving and laughing after our diagnoses because cancer researchers, past and present, relentlessly drive progress forward. We'll never know all their names, but they're physicians and scientists like Dr. Elenitoba-Johnson and Kaiyu and Scott — the faces of cancer research in this article — whose work improves our health and saves our lives. My gratitude to all of them is immeasurable.
In the last few years, cancer researchers have gained an unprecedented understanding of the mechanism of cancer, and it's already guided them to preventive strategies and to new and better treatments for some cancers. The momentum is great.
Today, scientists stand on the very precipice of accelerating progress faster than ever. But "fast" is relative. Cancer research is not a sprint, but a marathon that unfortunately takes longer than some of us have or that any of us would like. Still, for people who will soon hear "You have cancer," there is more hope than ever before — so long as scientific discoveries are translated into new and better treatments.
We already know that they can be, thanks in large part to our nation's investment in research, i.e., funding of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Cancer Institute (NCI), part of NIH. The question is: will the momentum generated by previous investment be sustained? I hope so, but it will take a continued commitment to keep research labs buzzing with activity.
Unfortunately — especially for those who depend on research to save their lives — the NIH budget for fiscal year 2011 was cut by $320 million, including a $45 million cut to NCI. In real terms, only 7 percent of all NCI grants this year have guaranteed funding, down 10 percent from last year, meaning that many worthy proposals that could possibly hold the key to the next breakthrough are unfunded.
In human terms, if the idea that saved my life had gone unfunded because it didn't make it into the top 7 percent, it's almost certain that I'd be pushing up daisies rather than writing this article. In other words, reduced or stagnant funding threatens progress — and lives.
Even with today's economic challenges, robust NIH/NCI funding is both logical and practical for more reasons than the fact that it saves lives (although in my humble opinion, that's more than enough reason). Cancer research is also an economic engine.
According to a report by United for Medical Research, NIH funding for research in 2010 generated $69 billion in economic activity in the U.S. and supported 484,939 jobs in every state and D.C. In Michigan, NIH awarded $751 million for research that supported 13,406 jobs. Michigan can't afford the loss of a single one.
The report also concluded that every NIH research dollar spent leads to the expenditure of 32 cents by the private medical research sector. And it points to the success of NIH funding. Five of the top 20 best selling drugs in 2010 were developed in large part with NIH funding: monoclonal antibody therapies that generated $35 billion in sales for American companies last year alone, not to mention yielding better outcomes with fewer side effects for patients.
Additionally, America is the world leader in cancer research and the development of new therapies. We didn't get there by chance. We got there because of the longterm commitment and steadfast determination by the administrations of both political parties to support and invest in research through NIH and NCI. But we may be slipping.
When adjusted for inflation, the NIH budget peaked in 2003 and declined by 12 percent over the next five years, and research awards fell by 21 percent since 2005. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reports that national expenditures for research and development as a percentage of GDP were static for the U.S. between 2001-2008 but grew nearly 60 percent in China and 34 percent in South Korea.
If this trend continues, America not only risks losing its preeminence in biomedical research, but we also risk weakening an important economic engine and jeopardizing the health of our citizens. As the "super committee" — that 12-member congressional panel charged with finding $1.5 trillion in debt savings over the next 10 years — moves forward, tough decisions lie ahead. Accomplishing the work will require putting the American people first and putting aside the political ideology that has paralyzed the government.
If I could send that committee of 12 (especially the two congressmen from Michigan, Fred Upton and Dave Camp) a single message, it would be this:
"NIH/NCI research funding is an important engine that contributes mightily to our economy. American citizens — your constituents — are reaping the benefits of our nation's investment in cancer research, and it's making a huge impact on lives — and jobs — saved. The American Association of Cancer Research (AACR) is urging Congress to provide the NIH and NCI with sustained budget increases of at least 5 percent above the biomedical inflation rate.
"The AACR knows what's needed better than I do, and so — for the benefit of cancer patients today and for those who will be diagnosed in the future, for the benefit of our economy, and for the benefit of maintaining American preeminence in cancer research — I urge you, no, I beg you, to make those increases a reality.
I recognize that I'm asking you to muster every ounce of your political will, courage, conviction, commitment - and yes, compassion - but appropriate funding of the NIH and NCI is the only way to capitalize on previous investment and sustain scientific momentum while also protecting the health of our economy, the health of our standing in the world, and most importantly, the health — indeed the very lives — of your fellow American citizens."
Would the committee listen to my plea? It will take more than my voice, so I encourage you to take five minutes or less to contact your representatives by phone or email.
After all, if those of us who stand to gain the most from cancer research don't stand up for ourselves, who will? Say whatever you like, but a simple message urging Congress "to provide the NIH and NCI with sustained budget increases of at least 5 percent above the biomedical inflation rate" is all that's really necessary.
Michigan Senators: Carl Levin: (202) 224-6221 or email and Debbie Stabenow: 202-224-4822 or email U.S. Congressmen representing Washtenaw County: Tim Wahlberg (District 7): 202-225-6276 or email and John Dingell (District 15): 202-225-4071 or email.
Note: If emailing Congressman Dingell or Wahlberg, you must provide a ZIP code to verify constituency.
Find other Michigan representatives or representatives of any state here.