The Answer to Cancer: Brilliant Scientific Minds

Lorraine W. Egan

Gregg Gordon was 44 and the picture of health until he suddenly became excessively tired and noticed two small bumps on his shin. A visit to his doctor led to a startling cancer diagnosis, and less than 24 hours later he was receiving chemotherapy to treat acute myeloid leukemia.

When standard treatments failed, Gregg’s best hope was a bone marrow transplant, but he could not find a donor match. Fortunately, he was referred to Colleen Delaney, M.D., in Seattle, who had developed a process for expanding stem cells from umbilical cord blood for use in patients without donors. As The Washington Post reported in September 2016, the procedure was a success and Gregg has been cancer-free for five years. 

The Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation supported Dr. Delaney when she had just started her career, taking a bet on her ambitious and challenging goal of using umbilical cord stem cells to save patients with blood cancers.  

Dr. Delaney’s innovative approach is one of many being taken by scientists to transform cancer prevention and treatment. Laboratory researchers are rapidly expanding our understanding of cancer and identifying new ways to attack it. Translational and clinical researchers are applying this knowledge to the development of  new treatments, such as immunotherapy and genetically targeted therapies, with exciting results. Cancer death rates have declined by 25% since 1991, and the number of cancer survivors has increased to over 15.5 million. Today, patients with some forms of cancer that were uniformly fatal just ten years ago are being treated successfully and even cured. 

As we recognize World Cancer Day on February 4, we must recommit our nation to building upon this progress by supporting our nation’s best defense against cancer – brilliant scientists. 

It is essential that we continue to recruit the best new talent into research and provide them with resources to explore bold new approaches, just as Dr. Delaney did. However, we risk losing young scientists to other careers because they do not perceive biomedical research to be a promising choice. The facts are oft-cited: the average age for a researcher to receive their first major NIH grant is now 42, compared with 36 in 1980. Today, less than 10% of research project grants go to investigators under 40. Limited opportunities and funding are no doubt scaring young scientists away.

My organization and others have been filling the gaps to maintain a robust pipeline of new talent. The NIH has focused on this issue in recent years and has been charged to do so again under the recently passed 21st Century Cures Act. However, the solution does not lie in tweaks to existing programs or new programs targeting small numbers of new scientists. It lies in a national commitment to increased and, perhaps more importantly, sustained and predictable levels of funding for biomedical research that will enable, encourage and inspire the best and brightest scientific minds in America.

With this commitment, we will bring an end to suffering from cancer and other human diseases.

Lorraine W. Egan is President and CEO of the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation.

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The capabilities are enormous, a little bit of research can pay off quite a bit in the long run.
Paul D’ Addario, retinitis pigmentosa patient