Investing today in tomorrow’s cures

Richard L. Schilsky, MD, FACP, FASCO

Over the next three weeks, Congress has an opportunity to reverse decades of declining support for a program that is vital to our nation’s public health. House and Senate appropriators will soon determine how to allocate $25 billion in additional non-defense discretionary spending for fiscal year (FY) 2016 before the continuing resolution expires on December 11. They now have the opportunity to address the damage resulting from years’ long stagnation in federally-funded research and reinvest in the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Cancer Institute (NCI).

Supporters of Research!America are fully aware of the decline in our federal research enterprise. The lack of sustained and stable research funding has profoundly affected progress in our fight against cancer. Taking inflation into account, NCI funding has decreased by 20 percent in the past 12 years.  The impact has been tangible: promising research has gone unfunded; new studies have been scaled back; talented investigators are leaving the field; and fewer cancer patients have access to clinical trials that might extend their lives.

Since 2005, the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) has published the Clinical Cancer Advances (CCA) report, highlighting the most significant cancer research advancements over the past year. In the 2015 report alone, almost one-third of the studies featured were supported by federal research funding. One study, for example, revealed one of the biggest survival gains ever observed in men with advanced prostate cancer. Another found a simple, affordable new way to preserve fertility for women with early-stage breast cancer, while others helped deliver new therapies for hard-to-treat diseases like brain cancer.

For more than 50 years, NCI-funded clinical trials have answered critical questions that private sector research does not investigate. Comparing the effectiveness of already-available treatments, evaluating the safety and efficacy of combination therapies, studying drugs for pediatric and rare cancers, understanding the toxicity of the treatments – these are critical research endeavors that only the federal government can pursue. Such research pursuits provide the necessary insights and information that make the private sector’s cancer research, drug development, and commercialization possible and enable treatment advances to be integrated into new standards of care for all Americans.

A boost in funding for NIH to at least $32 billion would make up for roughly three years of inflation, but we still have a long way to go. Congress can renew its commitment to federal research by providing the highest possible increase in FY 2016 funding for the NIH, including a proportional boost for the NCI. Increased funding for federal research is the fuel that turns promising ideas into the next breakthroughs in cancer care. It’s time for Congress to invest in tomorrow’s cures.

Richard L. Schilsky, MD, FACP, FASCO, is Chief Medical Officer of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) and a Past Chair of one of the National Cancer Institute’s Cooperative Groups, the Cancer and Leukemia Group B (CALGB).

 

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