David A. Tuveson, MD, PhD

WE ARE IN AN UNPRECEDENTED TIME of cancer discovery. Every day, physician-scientists make breakthroughs to better understand, prevent and treat cancers. The cancer community has seen remarkable progress in treating certain cancers, such as lung cancer and melanoma. With the advent of immunotherapies, those who years ago would have had little hope once the disease had spread now have a lifeline.​

One of my priorities as president of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) has been to advocate for increased investments in cancer research to accelerate treatments and cures. With so many breakthroughs within our grasp, it is imperative that federal investments in medical research keep up with demand.

While Congress has increased funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) by nearly 42% over the last six years, the increase in grant applications at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) has far exceeded available funding. Since 2013, the NCI has seen a nearly 50% increase in applications, compared to roughly 5% on average for the rest of the NIH. In fiscal year 2020, only 12.8% of the NCI’s competing research project grant applications were funded versus nearly 21% across the NIH. And that was the highest percentage of grants the NCI had funded in the previous six years.

While this renewed interest in cancer research is exciting, it has created a grant funding crisis at the NCI. The low success rate of receiving an NCI grant leaves good science unfunded and may contribute to fewer researchers coming into the cancer field, choosing instead more steadily funded fields of study. We need the best and the brightest, including researchers of diverse backgrounds, to be secure in knowing that the NIH will be a partner in building a more strong, vibrant foundation for cancer research.

The AACR is leading the way in advocating for increased cancer research funding. In May 2021, I was honored to testify before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education to speak to policymakers charged with making funding decisions for the NCI. In June 2021, I met with members of Congress and their staff as part of a joint AACR and Association of American Cancer Institutes Hill Day to advocate for increasing funding for cancer research. And in September, as the AACR led the annual Rally for Medical Research, I met with congressional officials to raise awareness of the importance of funding for cancer research and how our successes benefit the medical research enterprise. As Congress works to complete its fiscal year 2022 spending bills, I will continue to do all I can to increase funding for the NCI, and I encourage you to get involved by advocating for the lifesaving research supported by the NCI and NIH.

In addition to funding basic research at the NIH, the Biden administration has proposed an Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, or ARPA-H, designed to bring government, academia, philanthropy and industry together to tackle diseases such as cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer’s. In July 2021, I participated in a meeting organized by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the NIH to discuss opportunities in medical research that could be achieved through ARPA-H.

I view ARPA-H as the special forces that can get the difficult jobs done. But for those special forces to succeed, we need a strong military to provide the foundation and back them up. That’s how ARPA-H and a well-funded NCI can work together to achieve cures for cancer. But, as I noted to the White House, ARPA-H will only succeed if it builds on strong investments in the foundation of cancer research at the NCI. Together and in partnership, a well-funded NCI and ARPA-H could be the driving force in cancer discovery in the years ahead. I look forward to seeing what we can accomplish together. 

DAVID A. TUVESON, MD, PhD, is the president of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) and director and Roy J. Zuckerberg Professor of Cancer Research at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Cancer Center in Cold Spring Harbor, New York. The AACR publishes Cancer Today.​ 

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