Kevin McLaughlin Photo by Vera LaMarche
I first met Jack Whelan
at the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) Annual Meeting 2013 in April. He was one of dozens of remarkable people participating in the AACR Scientist↔Survivor Program, which introduces cancer patient advocates to the latest research and treatments, presented to them directly by leading scientists.
Diagnosed in 2007 with Waldenström macroglobulinemia, a rare and incurable blood cancer, Whelan is an avid booster of research. “I just have this confidence that science is going to help me get through this,” he says of his condition. He has good reason to be confident: Whelan—you can read more about him here—has benefited directly from a drug tested in one of the four clinical trials in which he took part.
The drug that helped Whelan and the therapies that benefit others almost always start with basic laboratory research and culminate in clinical trials, the tests that help determine a drug’s safety and effectiveness. The road can be long, arduous and expensive. Despite the challenges, remarkable progress has been made in cancer research and treatment, including advances in immunotherapy, through which the body’s immune system is “trained” to destroy cancer, and precision medicine, in which therapies are tailored to the individual characteristics of each patient. New insights have led to reduced mortality rates for many kinds of cancer, and improved quality of life and extended lifespans for many patients whose cancer cannot be cured.
Jack Whelan falls into that last category, and his faith in science and research remains undimmed. Whelan and I were among thousands who attended the Rally for Medical Research, held April 8 in Washington, D.C. Survivors, advocates, scientists and public officials spoke up loud and clear in favor of adequate federal funding for medical research in the face of wavering support from the federal government. As a follow-up to the event, nearly 250 research advocates gathered at the U.S. Capitol on Sept. 18 for the Rally for Medical Research Hill Day to take their message directly to their legislators.
That’s important because biomedical research isn’t cheap. Funding comes from a variety of sources—including businesses, foundations and individual philanthropists—but the primary source of funds is the federal government. Investments made through the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Cancer Institute (NCI) have made possible many of the breakthroughs in cancer medicine. Yet, continued funding at a sufficient level is in peril.
Since 2003, the budgets for the NIH and the NCI have been effectively shrinking because federal funding has not kept up with the rate of biomedical inflation. In addition, the NIH absorbed $1.6 billion in direct budget cuts in March under sequestration, the mandatory reductions that occurred after Congress failed to adopt measures to curb federal spending. The NCI budget took a $293 million hit as part of that $1.6 billion reduction. The result is that the NIH is now funding the smallest number of research projects since 2001. Less federal funding means less research, and that could mean fewer discoveries that move cancer treatments forward and help save or extend lives.
If you or someone you love is undergoing or has undergone cancer treatment, the odds are good that the research that led to the discovery and development of that treatment was, at least in part, funded by the federal government. You can help ensure that future generations benefit from research being done today by letting your senators and representatives in Congress know that you support funding for medical research. This is a cause that has enjoyed broad bipartisan political support in past years. It should not fall victim to partisan squabbles now.
October 17, 2013