Cancer progress threatened by budget cuts in Congress, group says

Nine new cancer drugs approved in just one year. A speedy new process for approving drugs that gets breakthrough treatments to cancer patients faster. New research that shows a cheap household product — vinegar — can save tens of thousands of lives.

It’s never looked better for progress against cancer, a new report from the American Society for Clinical Oncology finds. “However, this vital research is facing its greatest threat in a generation,” the group says in its annual report on cancer. The threat? Budget cuts in Congress.

“Funding at a high level is imperative," says Dr. Jyoti Patel, an oncologist at Northwestern University’s school of medicine and senior author of the report.

But the federal budget “sequester” that went into effect this year when Congress couldn’t agree on a budget has hit research hard. It doesn't give agency directors much discretion on what to cut — everything had to be slashed.

“In particular, NIH (the National Institutes of Health) cut existing grants by 10 percent and eliminated from consideration 700 viable research projects that otherwise would have been funded,” the report reads. The National Cancer Institute, part of the NIH, cut funding by at least 6 percent for existing grants, cancer centers, and other research programs. 

“Research and development contracts were cut by 8.5 percent,” the report reads.

“Although Congress enacted a five-year doubling of the NIH budget in 1998, funding for NIH has been effectively undoubled since that time. Including the cuts from sequestration, the NIH budget has declined by more than 22 percent ($6.1 billion) over the last decade, after adjusting for inflation.”

Despite the cuts, there’s been some great progress in drug development, including nine new drugs, mostly targeted therapies. They include omacetaxine mepesuccinate and ponatinib for chronic myeloid leukemia; pomalidomide for multiple myeloma; cabozantinib for thyroid cancer; a new form of Herceptin for breast cancer; radium-223 for prostate cancer; dabrafenib and trametinib for melanoma and afatinib for lung cancer

"The research progress just this year in so many cancers is proof that targeted, precision medicine is now a reality for an increasing number of patients," Dr. Clifford Hudis, president of ASCO, said in a statement.

“This remarkable number of new drug approvals in a 12-month period is indicative of vigorous drug development activity and improvements in regulatory processes, including accelerated approval, and special effort within the FDA (Food and Drug Administration),” the report reads.

“In addition, the new FDA breakthrough therapy designation, established by Congress in 2012, is designed to speed development of new treatments that may lead to substantial improvement over existing therapies. From October 2012 to September 6, 2013, the FDA has granted 26 breakthrough therapy designations, with the largest disease area for cancer therapies.”

The study also pointed to a study published in July that showed using vinegar to screen for cervical cancer could save 72,000 lives worldwide every year.

ASCO did a survey to see how the federal budget cuts were affecting researchers.

“ASCO members reported that this year’s funding cuts have had a devastating impact on their research and ability to make progress against cancer,” Patel and colleagues wrote in their report, published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

“In fact, 75 percent of the ASCO members who responded to an August 2013 survey said that since October 2012, the current federal funding situation is having a direct impact on their ability to conduct cancer research, and 38 percent said their time spent on research has been reduced. In addition, 35 percent reported having to lay off research staff, 28 percent are participating in fewer federally funded clinical trials, and 26 percent have delayed the launch of a clinical trial.”

Patel hopes these numbers will speak to members of Congress fighting over the budget. “I am optimistic,” she told NBC News. We know that we will end up spending $160 billion on cancer costs in 10 years.”

Some reports indicate Congress may be close to a deal. It’ll have to be quick. The House of Representatives finishes up for the year this week. 

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