Funds vital for cancer fight

We’re at a point in the fight against cancer where decades of discoveries are translating into new diagnostic and treatment tools at an accelerated rate. Unfortunately, this comes as agencies that fund cancer research face dire cutbacks.

There’s an urgent need to account for the tax dollars that feed our federal budget. Because Congress faces difficult decisions on how to cut that budget, I went to Washington recently to speak to lawmakers about the relationship of the National Institutes of Health to our nation’s cancer centers.

It is important to offer tangible proof of the great strides that have been made in treating and curing cancer due to NIH-funded cancer research. I’ve already seen how budget cuts are slowing the progress toward finding new cancer treatments.

I spoke on behalf of not only the Winship Cancer Institute but the American Association of Cancer Institutes, addressing members of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies. The chairman is Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga. Kingston visited Winship in January 2012 and took away a new understanding of how a cancer research institute serves cancer patients. I urged committee members to visit the centers in their districts to see the outstanding work my colleagues do at their institutions.

The National Cancer Institute (NCI) is one of the NIH’s institutes. NCI awards its designation to cancer centers that demonstrate expertise in laboratory, clinical and behavioral and population-based cancer research. Winship first received NCI designation in 2009, joining a prestigious group of about five dozen cancer centers. Winship is Georgia’s only NCI-designated cancer center.

This designation is not about prestige, however. It is about the ability to find better treatments for cancer. That ability hinges to a large degree on funding.

While Congress continues to debate the remainder of the fiscal year 2013 budget, NIH and NCI have prepared for cuts through fiscal year 2021. NIH will suffer a cut of $1.6 billion, of which NCI will lose about $250 million. These cuts could be disastrous in the progress against cancer. Continued progress in cancer research depends on the sustained efforts of highly skilled research teams working at cancer centers supported by NCI. A budget cut will decrease funding to cancer research across the country and impact many of the research teams working on new treatments and cures. Rebuilding such teams, even after a short break in funding, could take years.

This is especially concerning because we have better tools to treat cancer than ever before. We risk driving an entire generation of young cancer physicians and researchers abroad to seek opportunities to practice their craft and advance their careers, or out of the field altogether.

We are on a clear path to dramatic breakthroughs. We have come too far in cancer research progress to lose Congress’ full support of NIH and, ultimately, NIH’s funding of NCI-designated cancer centers and the National Clinical Trials Network.

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Dr. Walter J. Curran Jr. is executive director of the Winship Cancer Institute at Emory University and a radiation oncologist.