Fund cancer research to keep breakthroughs coming [Commentary]

Thousands of cancer scientists — not your usual political activists — are expected to "Rally for Medical Research" on Capitol Hill Thursday to bring attention to dwindling federal support.

With justifications including "sequestration," "shutdown," and "furlough," Congress has shifted the onus of funding cancer research, education and detection away from the federal budget, and onto its own citizens. According to Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, the agency has lost 25 percent of its purchasing power over the past decade, discouraging American scientists from innovative research.

In Maryland the stakes are particularly high: According to the CDC, cancer is currently the second leading cause of death, accounting for nearly a quarter of all deaths. CDC data shows that more than half of all counties in Maryland have populations with "high" cancer rates (over 200 incidents per 100,000 people). Furthermore, in Baltimore City, cancer deaths occur at a rate 1.3 times higher than the national average.

According to the American Cancer Society and American Association for Cancer Research, national cancer mortality rates decreased and by 30 percent nationwide over the past three decades.

A report released by the Maryland Cigarette Restitution Fund shows that from 2001-2010, cancer diagnoses declined about two thirds of a percent each year in the state. Mortality rates dropped almost 2 percent annually. The dramatic decline in deaths is attributed to medical technology, breakthrough cancer detection research and aggressive public outreach on early screenings.

If Americans do not want decades of medical progression to reverse, they must urge Congress to change course quickly.

State Sen. C. Anthony Muse, a Prince George's County Democrat, spearheaded legislation for the Maryland Department of Health to investigate cancer clusters within the state and find environmental causes, such as tobacco use, weight, diet, industry or exposures to chemicals.

When Senator Muse's committee reported recommendations to the state legislature earlier this year, members found that, "collectively these environmental factors are involved to some degree in 2 of 3 (67 percent) cancers, both alone and in combination with inherited factors." The report urges Maryland to "collaborate with academic institutions and federal agencies" in order to expand prevention strategy efforts and educate at-risk populations.

None of this can be done without funding. The current NIH disease categories spending report reveals that, as a whole, cancer-related funding has been slashed 23 percent since 2010. As the NIH works with functional budget levels akin to Fiscal Year 2008, the agency is forced to balance limited resources with the costs of staying at the cutting edge of world-class scientific research.

During a debate on the House floor last spring, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat, said reductions to the National Institutes of Health and other institutions with innovative genomics and cancer research programs, such as Johns Hopkins University, is a "stupid, harmful, future-hurting and America under-cutting policy."

Long-term cancer research is vital. A research team at the George Washington University Berg Laboratory discovered that a gene, known as BP1, is activated in 80 percent of breast cancer incidents. The team also found that the gene is activated in 70 percent of prostate cancer tumors, as well as in 63 percent of acute myeloid leukemia cases. Other researchers have found the gene highly activated in lung and ovarian cancer. Without sustained support, current knowledge of the BP1 gene would be non-existent.

Hillary Clinton, a long-time champion for cancer survivors, called the discovery an "exciting" area of research. "If this gene appears in so many different kinds of cancers, learning how to suppress it will be immensely useful," she said, noting that two areas of research "already show promise."

Victories in cancer research are not reason to abandon the support that caused them.

"We are throwing away probably half of the innovative, talented research proposals that the nation's finest biomedical community has produced," Dr. Collins said.

The U.S. must not allow cancer to regain a stranglehold and outsource scientific research leadership to other countries. Rather than declaring past falling death rates as good enough, Congress should act aggressively and recommission the fight to eradicate the disease.

Tom Sherman is senior policy analyst for Solutions for Change Foundation; his email is tompsherman@gmail.com. Dr. Patricia Berg is professor of biochemistry and molecular medicine at GWU Medical Center and directs the breast cancer laboratory. Her email is peb@gwu.edu. Robert Weiner is former White House Office of National Drug Policy spokesman and chief of staff of the House Committee on Aging and Subcommittee on Health; his email is weinerpublic@comcast.net.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2017, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
66°