Advice for making cancer dollars count Report to Congress demands more funds, maximum effectiveness

October 16, 1998|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- An unusual alliance of cancer specialists has joined with survivors and advocates to outline to Congress precisely how they believe a substantial increase in research funding by the federal government could help cure the disease.

Authors of the report, released yesterday, say they have devised a blueprint to ensure that any new money is used to fill the specific gaps that have impeded efforts to find a cure in the past.

And they flatly reject criticism, some of it expressed in the wake of last month's cancer march in Washington, that more money is not the solution to a disease that kills 1,500 Americans a day.

"This is not fantasy," said Dr. Stephen Baylin, associate director for research at the Johns Hopkins Oncology Center and a leading author of the report.

"We aimed responsibly to justify our recommendations. It is based on what we needed and what we can do."

Predicting that cancer rates will "reach staggering proportions" in the next decade, making treatment increasingly expensive, the report demands that Congress double funding for the National Cancer Institute -- to $5 billion -- beginning in October 1999.

By 2003, the report says, annual funding for the agency should be set at $10 billion.

Already, in the current budget agreement, House-Senate negotiators have agreed to expand funding for the institute by $250 million, as part of a $2 billion increase for the National Institutes of Health, the largest single-year increase in history.

More important than additional dollars, advocates contend, is that the authors of the report have fashioned a novel approach to use additional money more effectively.

The report demands that funding for "translational research" -- .. the process by which basic scientific research is applied toward the creation of new drugs and prevention methods -- be significantly increased, from $150 million to $1.2 billion, over five years.

The extra money is intended to ensure that vital discoveries in basic research are not held up by a lack of resources.

Annual funding for clinical trials at the nation's 20 cancer centers would jump from $140 million to $600 million.

Many breakthroughs -- such as the ability to detect the genetic code for cancer in a person's blood -- become stalled because researchers lack the resources for clinical trials large enough to substantiate results, the authors maintain.

The report also complains that only 25 percent of individual researchers who compete for federal grants get them. Money for such research, the report said, should be bumped up, from $1.2 billion to $3 billion, by 2003.

Sen. Connie Mack, a Florida Republican who is a vocal advocate of cancer research, acknowledged that persuading Congress to increase the National Cancer Institute's budget by $2.5 billion next October would not be easy.

"We've made a pretty good effort to get where we are," Mack said in a statement. "It's going to take some work to convince my colleagues that we ought to be shooting at a higher number."

Any major increase in funding would translate into a boost in cancer research funding for Baltimore-area hospitals, such as the Johns Hopkins Oncology Center, which, as one of 20 comprehensive cancer centers in the country, receives a core grant of $2 million each year. More cancer research money in the future may be used to expand facilities or staff, administrators said.

Even though the cancer rally in Washington last month drew more than 80,000 people calling for increased research, critics have expressed doubt that pouring more money into the National Cancer Institute is the best answer.

"This is basically a cancer-drug industry scam," said Dr. Samuel Epstein, a professor of environmental medicine at the University of Illinois.

Epstein and other critics complain that the National Cancer Institute has ignored evidence that many cancers can be prevented, in favor of spending more money on treatment.

The report from the alliance, to be distributed Monday on Capitol Hill, maps out an approach hinging on cooperation between academia and private drug companies. The coalition that produced the report includes scientists from both research centers and pharmaceutical companies, as well as leaders of advocacy groups and survivors.

Ellen V. Sigal, vice chairwoman of the organization that sponsored both last month's rally and the report, said the 164 authors spent a year fine-tuning exactly how each new dollar would be spent. Originally, she said, the group was going to request $15 billion by 2003, but eventually it scaled back that number.

"What we didn't want to do was say, 'More,' " Sigal said. "We understand we are competing for finite dollars. There are many needs in this country."

Pub Date: 10/16/98

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