Federal spending cuts could hurt America's cancer research efforts

Luis Fábregas
| Saturday, April 6, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Remember the sequestration that had politicians in a tizzy a few weeks ago? Turns out the federal spending cuts may have the potential to disrupt important medical research that could affect all our families.

The National Institutes of Health, the nation's top health research agency, will see a whopping $2.5 billion in cuts in fiscal year 2013, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Medical experts suggest looming cuts will be particularly harmful to cancer-related research. Major cancer organizations say cancer patients will suffer because without money there will be slowdowns in cancer research and, ultimately, the approval of drugs and other treatments will be seriously compromised.

Thankfully, some of these medical groups aren't staying quiet. More than 100 organizations will hold a Rally for Medical Research on Monday in Washington to protest the cuts. Among those attending the rally will be Dr. Nancy Davidson, the well-regarded breast cancer researcher who heads the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute.

Davidson told me last week she has serious concerns about the cuts, which no doubt will affect the institute's work. She will be forced to cut jobs, shut laboratories and halt promising experiments. She won't be able to hire faculty members and faces the possibility of shutting programs.

The institute will have to shave 5 percent of about $65 million in grants from the National Cancer Institute. The cuts get bigger when you include all of Pitt's schools of the health sciences, which stand to lose about $26 million of their overall $486 million in NIH grants.

“That's a lot of payroll, that‘s a lot of experiments, that's a lot of good ideas that are not going to be able to be pursued,” Davidson said.

It gets worse. Cuts could include young scientists who are working on cutting-edge experiments that could eventually make their way to clinical trials. You've probably bumped into some of them if you've ever been at the Hillman Cancer Center in Shadyside, home of the cancer institute.

“If we don't have a workforce that's passionate and prepared and able to take this forward, we're going to stop,” Davidson said. “It's a terrible situation for us because we have made so much progress.”

It's hard to argue with the progress — a steady drop in cancer death rates that means more than a million deaths have been avoided. Death rates have declined in some of the most fatal — and feared — forms of cancer: lung, breast, colon and prostate.

I asked Davidson for specific examples to show how research and its discoveries changed the treatment of cancer. She mentioned an aggressive form of the illness called HER2-positive breast cancer. There are now four agents that specifically target the HER2 protein, compared with none in 1998, she said. Part of her visit to Washington includes meetings with other cancer experts to fine-tune guidelines to use those treatments.

Davidson's fears are justified. Every advancement in cancer makes a difference. All progress aside, it remains a dreaded disease that touches virtually every family in the United States. It makes no sense to kill research and, in the process kill the next big medical breakthrough.

Luis Fábregas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7998 or lfabregas@tribweb.com.

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