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Fund science to fight cancer

Candace Fox, a third-year cancer research PhD student at the University of Central Florida Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences, talks about her work with genetically modifying viruses, in the lab on the school’s Lake Nona campus, Thursday, July 20, 2017. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel)

This December the United States will enter the 46th year of its longest ongoing war: the war on cancer. During this time, we have lost more lives to this disease than all U.S. military casualties since the birth of our country.

The passage of the National Cancer Act in 1971 led to significant advances in cancer research, and the passage of the bipartisan 21st Century Cures Act will build on this success. However, the proposed cuts to non-defense spending in the 2018 federal budget will dramatically reduce funding for science research across the country. Cancer researchers like myself rely on this funding to make advancements that lead to the discovery of new drugs and treatments. The proposed cuts will significantly slow the pace at which these life-saving discoveries can be made.

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As a Ph.D. student at the University of Maryland Baltimore, I have the privilege of working alongside numerous dedicated scientists and researchers to further our understanding of how cancer works so we can develop new treatments. Today most families have been impacted by a cancer diagnosis, and many have benefited from constantly improving cancer therapeutics. Because of this, it's easy to relate to — and understand the value of — my work. However, we can't forget that it is based on the research that many others have done before me, including those not directly involved in investigating cancer. It's this underlying foundational research that makes breakthroughs that prevent or cure cancers possible.

Maryland is home to many cancer researchers in our universities, at the National Institutes of Health, the National Cancer Institute and the numerous biotech companies throughout the state. We all became scientists for different reasons, but we share a drive to discover new things, to understand our world better and to use our research findings and conclusions to help other people. Translating this drive into breakthroughs that prevent or cure cancer is not possible without federal funding to support it.

The value of foundational research is not always obvious. However, many of the critical advancements in the fight against cancer were born from studies that had no initial connection to cancer at all. One of the most promising of these advancements has been a breakthrough in gene editing technology that allows scientists to easily and accurately modify cells, greatly improving our ability to examine what makes cancer tick. This technology originated from basic research of bacteria, a field completely unrelated to cancer. Today, this technology is used to create new cancer treatments and therapies that couldn't have been possible before. Without the hard work of those researchers, and the help of federal funding, cancer treatments would be years behind where they are today.

Such basic research isn't just essential in the fight against cancer, it is essential for science generally. It is often these seemingly obscure lines of research that lead to incredible breakthroughs. When you hear about the release of a new drug or an advancement in cancer therapy made by a private company or a scientist in the pharmaceutical industry, remember that those advancements are rooted in basic scientific research funded by the U.S. government through institutions like the National Science Foundation.

We have made immense strides in cancer research, but there is still work to do. Americans today have a 40 percent chance of getting cancer in their lifetimes, so we must continue to study how cancer starts and how it can be stopped. Further breakthroughs will not be possible without U.S. investment in basic science funding. Millions of scientists are on the front lines discovering cures and laying the foundation for a prosperous and healthy future for all.

The war on cancer touches all our lives, and it is a war that we can end by supporting the dedication and hard work of our most talented scientists. Please urge your congressional representatives to support scientists and to increase non-defense funding in the federal budget.

Benjamin Wolfson is a doctoral candidate at the University of Maryland, Baltimore. He can be reached at www.benwolfson.com or on Twitter: @brwolfson.

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