The Critical Need for Cancer Research Funding

By Heather Martin


The Critical Need for Cancer Research Funding: Job Creation and Lives Saved


Sign the Petition now to Increase NIH Funding for Cancer Research


To discover new treatments and cures for cancer, researchers must intricately study the disease in order to understand how it works and what makes it grow. It is the ultimate of ironies that in order to destroy cancer, you must first understand what causes it to flourish.


Cancer research requires time, focus, patience and least of all, money. While cancer still has a devastating impact on many of our lives – through friends, family and loved ones who are diagnosed – the lives of many are saved because of the dedicated efforts of researchers.


One of these researchers is Dr. Sandra Orsulic, PhD, currently the Director of Women’s Cancer Biology at the Women’s Cancer Program at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. Her current research project is focused on the study of the molecular pathways of ovarian cancer. Oftentimes treatments, cures and progress come out of serendipitous discovery during the process of painstaking research. Dr. Orsulic states that as an example “Hodgkin’s Lymphoma is a type of cancer that is now 90 percent curable because of intensive research performed in the fifties and sixties.” Research work such as hers will have a critical role in moving towards better treatment and ultimately, a cure. And this research requires money.


Funding generally comes from one of two sources – the government or private foundations/non-profits. Government sources are typically the National Cancer Institute (NCI) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), or alternatively the Department of Defense (DOD). Dr. Orsulic explains that funding is often based on the frequency of occurrence for the type of cancer in question. The most highly funded cancer research projects are for lung, prostate and breast cancer because they are the most common. For example, breast cancer is ten times more common than ovarian cancer and the NCI and DOD allocate ten times more funding for breast cancer than for ovarian cancer. However, some would argue that this distribution of funds isn’t fair because the five-year survival rate (the percentage of patients who are still alive five years after diagnosis) is 90% for breast cancer and only 45% for ovarian cancer. This means there is often less firsthand survivor experiences out there to bring awareness to the issue.


Since the economic downturn and increased volatility, funding in general has diminished. The percentage of reviewed grant applications that receive funding from NCI has been reduced from 20 percent in 2004 to approximately 12 percent this year. To prevent this number from falling even lower, NCI has been reducing award amounts by 20%.


For researchers like Dr. Orsulic, this grant process can begin to feel like a lottery. She says that “the typical research project lasts for 5 years and usually requires at least $1 million in NIH funding. In addition, you often need more than one large grant and so you seek supplemental dollars by applying to foundations.”


She is constantly writing grants, but lucky for her and those who will benefit from her work, she enjoys this process. It is a necessary part of the work she does, and it is a numbers game. Due to the funding deficit, she has to send out more grants to get the same dollars. The more grants submitted, the higher the probability of receiving funds. This, however, comes at a price. Time and resources are limited therefore the more time spent acquiring funds, translates to less time and energy for research.


Dr. Orsulic says that “riskier research projects lead to the biggest results; however no one has money for risky research in this economy. The funding now is for the less risky projects that result in slightly better treatment outcomes or incremental scientific progress, but not a big leap forward. Ninety nine percent of risky projects may not move forward, but 1 percent could lead to great success.” While she is clear that we need both types of cancer research, incremental and risky, she cautions that ultimately we are taking a greater risk by not funding riskier research.


Dr. Orsulic is currently funded for four years with a $750,000 grant from the American Cancer Society (ACS). “For 66 years the American Cancer Society has funded the early research of promising young researchers like Dr. Orsulic, who might otherwise go unfunded,” said David F. Veneziano, CEO American Cancer Society, California Division, Inc. “Our investment has led to 46 Nobel Prizes and discoveries such as the link between smoking and lung cancer, obesity and cancer, the effectiveness of the Pap smear in detecting cervical cancer and the development of Interferon, Herceptin and Gleevec.”


“The American Cancer Society is the largest non-governmental source of research funding in this country — about $128 million each year. Countless donors and 3,000,000 volunteers make that research possible.”


Dr. Orsulic closes the interview with the following: “Scientists by nature don’t go into the public to talk about their research but they are realizing more and more the importance of advertising their work. We enjoy all sorts of technical inventions such as running water, cell phones, and heat. But we take for granted that without funding there will be less technical advances to enjoy in the future.”


Readers have an amazing opportunity to support increased funding right now by going online and signing a petition to increase funding for NIH.

The petition expires on April 16th so please sign and share today:


Dr. Stephen J. Meltzer is the premier champion of this petition. Currently Dr. Meltzer is a Professor of Medicine and Oncology at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. He says that “this petition is important in order to raise awareness, not only within the White House but in the public in general, regarding the value of National Institutes of Health (NIH) research. As we state in the petition, the NIH is a massive economic engine that directly supports 450,000 jobs in every state and territory of our nation. Each dollar invested in the NIH returns $2.25 in economic activity. Each research grant awarded creates an average of 7 jobs. Moreover, most of the major medical discoveries occurring in this country since 1965 were supported by NIH funds. Without the NIH, our current health and medical care today would be much poorer. Finally, all of our medical schools depend heavily on NIH funding. Without adequate increases in NIH funding, our superior medical education system is likely to collapse.”


Funding can be increased if we shift our priorities as a nation and increase awareness of the importance of this vital issue. Cancer research funding contributes to the economy and saves lives. The research community needs our support. Without their commitment to the study of cancer and to garnering the needed grants to fund their work, we will have no hope for a cure. We have all lost loved ones to cancer. A cure could have saved my brother. He is no longer with us, but with our commitment, we can become partners with researchers in order to create a better world where cancer is but a distant memory, and the loss of our loved ones was not in vain.


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