Cancer funding faces $40 million cut


WASHINGTON -- Facing the deepest cut in federal research funding in a generation, cancer scientists and their supporters are mounting a last-minute lobbying push in Congress to reverse President Bush's proposed $40 million reduction.

The effort recently won a significant victory in the Senate, which passed two measures calling for more health spending. One bill, co-sponsored by Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland, would increase federal funding of cancer research by $245 million.

But the push, which has involved cancer groups quietly buttonholing White House and congressional leaders and mobilizing tens of thousands of supporters across the country, faces uncertain prospects in a tight fiscal climate. The House Budget Committee, which traditionally hews closely to the president's plan, began deliberating yesterday.

"I can't recall a time when more frustration and depression has set in among cancer researchers, oncologists and drug researchers than right now," said Dr. William N. Hait, president-elect of the American Association for Cancer Research and director of the Cancer Institute of New Jersey.

Bush has proposed cutting the budget of the National Cancer Institute, the federal agency that funds much of the cancer research in the United States, to $4.75 billion from $4.79 billion. The reduction, the agency says, would be the first in consecutive years since the early 1980s, the last time the cancer institute's budget was cut.

Bush administration officials call the proposed cuts difficult but necessary, given competing priorities such as preparing for a possible bird flu pandemic and guarding against bioterrorism. Overall, they emphasized, funding for the National Institutes of Health would remain level.

"We had to make hard choices - hard choices about very well-intentioned programs," Health and Human Services Secretary Michael O. Leavitt said.

The cuts would be strongly felt at Johns Hopkins University and other leading research institutions. Spending on research grants would be trimmed by more than 2 percent, budget projections indicate. Hopkins received $85 million in funding, the fifth-highest in the country, in fiscal year 2005, according to the most recent figures available. The University of California system won the most federal money, $185 million.

Multidisciplinary teams established in Baltimore with federal money over the past few years to investigate a range of cancers would be endangered, said Dr. William Nelson, AACR's legislative affairs chairman and a Hopkins prostate cancer researcher.

"Just as we were beginning to make progress, we are beginning to back off," he said.

Even before the cuts were announced, cancer scientists and activists began a campaign of op-ed articles, e-mail alerts and public events. Cancer groups launched lobbying of the House with a rally Tuesday, and they are planning to deluge representatives with calls and e-mail as a vote nears, said Wendy Selig, vice president for legislative affairs at the American Cancer Society.

They have crafted a message to make the point that cancer patients will be hurt just as emerging discoveries of therapies that target a patient's cells or spur the body's immune system portend improved treatments.

"We're not just saying we need more" money, said Ellen V. Sigal, founder and chairwoman of Friends of Cancer Research in Washington. "We're talking more tangibly about what's been accomplished and what's at stake."

Beyond the loss of research grants, scientists fear a longer-term effect: the shift of talented young researchers to different work, because that's where the money is.

One scientist who made such a move is Dr. Stuart Lutzker, who went to Genentech in San Francisco from the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in Piscataway, N.J.

Lutzker said his primary motivation was to work on drug development, rather than basic science, but that money for research was a factor. The intense competition for academic research grants, he said, was difficult.

"One thing that makes industry attractive is there are more resources that can be brought to bear," he said.

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