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Federal Cancer Research Funding Crisis Threatens Detroit, Nation

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By Dr. Patricia Berg and Robert Weiner
Originally Published in the Michigan Chronicle

Forty years ago, the Nation Declared a War on Cancer. Now, "Funding is in crisis," Dr. Judy Garber, outgoing President of the American Association for Cancer Research, told the 18,000 scientists gathered at their national convention in Chicago last week. Jon Retzlaff, Director of Science Policy & Government Affairs, added that the "price index places the National Cancer Institute's budget 20% below its real dollars in 2003." The impact: "Things are having to slow down". We cannot support the fantastic research" that has improved survival from cancer by over 30% the last three decades.

As the government keeps funding two foreign wars and ongoing tax breaks, curing diseases like cancer is being threatened in the budget process. In both the State of the Union and Budget Message, President Obama promised investment in biomedical research. However, the House budget just passed (the Ryan-Rodgers budget endorsed by now-presumptive Presidential nominee Mitt Romney) reduces NIH research by so-called "flat funding" for three straight years. While making hard budget choices, the nation is almost schizophrenic between cuts and necessary programs. With the economy still in crisis, the private sector does not have the ability to make up the difference.

A recently published Avon Foundation-funded study by Steven Whitman, Jennifer Orsi, and Marc Hurlburt points to race and poverty as primary factors for disproportionately high cancer mortality figures, and Detroit is affected by both. Whereas the national African-American cancer mortality is 1.4 times the Caucasian rate, in Detroit, with the highest poverty among the nation's 25 largest cities, the ratio is 1:1. The researchers said that Detroit's median family income of $29,109 is the lowest among the 25 largest cities and that poverty and resulting "access to care" are among "likely explanations" for high cancer rates. The article, "Racial Disparity in Breast Cancer Mortality in the 25 Largest Cities in the U.S.", is in Cancer Epidemiology (April 2012).

Research cuts mean ongoing cancer deaths. One in two men and one in three women will develop cancer in their lifetime according to the National Cancer Institute. There are 1.5 million new cancer cases and 570,000 deaths annually in the U.S. There are over 200,060 new breast cancer patients and 40,000 deaths each year.

Thanks to successful laboratory research, a woman's risk of dying of breast cancer has now dropped 31 percent since 1989. Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the National Institute of Health (NIH) told the National Press Club, "There is a direct line from NIH research to the life-span increases" in America. Despite these breakthroughs, the U.S. now ranks 49th in life expectancy, right above Taiwan, Kuwait, Cyprus, Cuba, Panama, and Costa Rica.

Just while such clear breakthroughs are being made--and with breast cancer still ranking as the number one fear for women -- now is no time to stop the train and cut funding.

If government funding does drop or stalemate, cutting-edge researchers will have to seek even more funding from private foundations and corporations, trying to fill the void.

And they do try. The Avon Foundation has donated nearly a Billion dollars to breast cancer education, research, and prevention since 1992, and 200 million to research in the last decade. Avon expedites tests and advancement of cutting-edge discoveries with significant diagnosis and treatment potential like BP1, a gene expressed in the tumors of 80% of women with breast cancer and 70% of men with prostate cancer -- and showing disproportionately high numbers for African-American women with breast cancer. Komen and the Susan Love Foundation also help make up the difference. In the world's wealthiest nation, with hard-to-explain government funding cuts, private industries are scrambling to fund life-saving research.

Dr. William Grizzle, Professor of Pathology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and Senior editor of Clinical Cancer Research, says that because of the recent standstill, "We are 5-8 years in arrears" in developing better therapies. "If there is less money for research, it means there are fewer cures," Garber points out.

One of President Obama's key lieutenants, Cong. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz of Florida's 20th District, a breast cancer survivor, won the 2011 AACR Distinguished Public service award. However, the military's insistence on maintaining old unending wars and the House insistence on health research budget cuts make the objectives difficult no matter how many heroic warriors research has.

The future of the new national health care law, which provides free mammograms and colonoscopies that detect cancer early when it is more curable and could catch Stage I cancers before they develop into Stage IV, is also under fire. The future is uncertain.

Regrettably, too many scientists are shy about helping their mission. Sridhar Ramaswamy, Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Cancer Center, told us at the AACR convention, "Scientists think if they press for money it's self-serving." But not all are shy. Dr. Steven Meltzer, Professor of Medicine and Oncology at Johns Hopkins University, has led two national petition drives with thousands of signatures calling for a 10% increase in NIH funding and arguing, "Don't let the United States fail in biomedical research."

Under President Clinton and under the Obama stimulus, NIH's budget doubled, but efforts to maintain the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars and the political insistence on tax cuts are now causing medical research to be sliced -- and lives with them.

To keep the breakthroughs and research going strong, the public must support cancer research foundations -- and press Congress to halt its efforts to dry up federal research dollars. If we want to fight cancer, and win, there is no substitute for the federal catalyst.

Dr. Patricia Berg is director of a breast cancer research laboratory and Professor at George Washington University Medical Center.

Robert Weiner, is a former White House spokesman, former Chief of Staff for the House Aging Committee and Health Subcommittee, and former spokesman for the House Government Operations Committee under Chairman Cong. John Conyers (Detroit).

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