Stimulus Funds Provide a Temporary Boon to Cancer Research

MAY 30, 2009
Christin Melton
Although the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (also known as the stimulus bill) was very contentious in Congress, Richard L. Schilsky, MD, professor of medicine at the University of Chicago in Illinois and president of ASCO; and John Niederhuber, MD, director of the National Cancer Institute (NCI), were in complete agreement that it was a boon to cancer research. Dr. Schilsky said he was “pleased” with the legislation, which directs  $10.4 billion to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), of which $1.3 billion is designated specifically for NCI in 2009 and 2010.

Dr. Schilsky and Dr. Niederhuber noted that federal funding for cancer research was virtually flat from 2004-2008; when adjusted for inflation, the budgets actually decreased. Dr. Schilsky said the de facto budget cut stalled the pace of cancer research at a time when cancer rates are on the rise.

In considering how NCI should spend the stimulus funds, Dr. Niederhuber said it was important to do so “wisely… in science that is exciting for the future.” He said one of his directors’ foremost concerns was what the American people would want NCI to do. “Clearly the people of our country want us to find ways to prevent this disease whenever we can; they want us to find ways to diagnose it as early as we can; and they want us to find new approaches to treatment that are much more specific and much less toxic--that will allow us to maintain this disease if we can’t cure it,” he said.

Both physicians expressed concern that a short-term infusion of money would not enable the NCI to sustain funding for the hundreds of research grants it disperses. “It is critical that this commitment is maintained over time,” Dr. Schilsky said. “Sustained, dependable funding increases for cancer research are key to accelerating progress against the disease,” he added.   

Dr. Niederhuber said that the NCI is making plans to modify the organization’s budget so that the new grant recipients onducting the most meritorious research can receive 3- to 4-year grants. He noted that 90% of researchers awarded 2-year grants return to request additional funding. Without it, many cannot continue their research. Few studies produce solid results in just 2 years, which is why offering longer grants is essential in the goal of advancing cancer care. The NCI will also be offering 5-year grants for new researchers, to encourage them to stick with oncology research.

The purpose of the stimulus bill was to promote job creation, Dr. Niederhuber said.  To that end, Dr. Niederhuber said NCI grants currently support between 77,000 and 117,000 jobs. An increase in NCI’s annual budget this year should help the organization sustain some of the new positions created through stimulus-funded grants.

Other plans for the stimulus money include more money for training and educational programs and for The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA). Dr. Niederhuber said NCI hopes to add genome profiles for 25 more tumors. He noted that “just knowing what the genetic defects are won’t be enough,” and said it would be important to fund research that will translate the defects into practical application, such as identifying targets for earlier diagnosis and developing new therapeutics and classes of therapeutics. “We are not going to change the burden of this disease other than investment in science.” He said if NCI could show Congress that the money produced exciting results, it increased the likelihood of securing more funding.

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