On The Hill: Cancer Center Directors, Patient Advocate Stress Need for Increased Funding

On February 11, AACI hosted an educational briefing on Capitol Hill, with support from the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) and in cooperation with the House Cancer Caucus. The briefing focused on educating new legislators, their staff, and Hill veterans about the importance of the nation’s cancer centers. The panelists were: AACI President George J. Weiner, MD, director, Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center; Roy A. Jensen, MD, director, The University of Kansas Cancer Center; Candace S. Johnson, PhD, president and CEO and director, Roswell Park Cancer Institute; and Averl Anderson, a patient advocate from Buffalo, New York.

GR education panel Feb 2015

AACI Capitol Hill cancer research briefing: (L-R) Cancer center directors George Weiner, Roy Jensen and Candace Johnson, with patient advocate Averl Anderson.

As the panel’s moderator, Dr. Weiner, who also serves as vice chair of AACR’s Science Policy and Government Affairs committee, highlighted the role that cancer centers play in conducting and supporting multidisciplinary cancer research; training cancer physicians and scientists; providing state-of-the-art care and disseminating information about cancer detection, diagnosis, treatment, prevention, control, palliative care, and survivorship.

Despite significant progress in combating the disease, the cancer community still faces difficult challenges, Dr. Weiner said. For example, many new ideas are going untested because of shrinking resources–the NIH budget has dropped 24 percent ($6.5 billion) since 2003, when accounting for inflation in the cost of biomedical research, and NCI’s budget has been cut 26.4 percent ($1.2 billion).

Dr. Johnson recalled the many opportunities that were available to her when she was a young scientist, but she is now concerned that stagnant funding will drive today’s budding scientists out of the field, thus impeding research progress.

“If we didn’t have these [cancer] centers it would be a loss to patients and everyone in the country,” Dr. Johnson said.

Dr. Jensen, whose center received NCI designation in 2012, also highlighted cancer centers’ role in driving research, stressing the need for predictable federal funding in order for cancer centers to make faster progress.

Ms. Anderson discussed her volunteer work with the Roswell Park Buffalo/Niagara Witness Project, a program targeting underserved women in Buffalo. In 2008 the Witness Project set a goal to recruit 200 women to acquire mammograms. Ms. Anderson was the 200th volunteer and the only one to be diagnosed with breast cancer. She said that the mammogram saved her life; she also credited the care that she received as part of a clinical trial at Roswell Park Cancer Institute.

Ms. Anderson urged that myths about cancer prevention and detection and the history of cancer be dispelled. In some communities, especially minority communities, cancer diagnoses are not discussed among families and friends, she said, noting that in some homes it is taboo for children to hear about aunts, uncles and parents with cancer.

“Cancer is growing. We need to grow with it and funding must grow with it,” she said.

Jennifer W. Pegher, AACI Government Relations Manager


Case Study: How AACI’s Clinical Research Initiative Helps to Improve Clinical Trial Management

G  Radakovic

Dr. Gospova Radakovic, Director, Office of Clinical Research, University of Virginia Cancer Center

Over the past year, Dr. Gospova Radakovic, director of the Office of Clinical Research at the University of Virginia (UVA) Cancer Center, has been searching for ways to shorten UVA’s clinical trials activation timeline. At the 6th Annual AACI CRI Meeting in Chicago, Dr. Radakovic attended a session entitled, “Death by Startup: Clinical Trial Activation Challenges”, to learn about how her colleagues communicate with the multiple institutional departments (e.g., regulatory, finance administration, budgeting and contracting, pharmacy, pathology, radiology, laboratory, clinical staff) that are involved in the review and approval of oncology trials.

One of the session’s panelists, Dr. Vicki Keedy, Assistant Medical Director, Clinical Trials Shared Resource at Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center, talked about Vanderbilt’s Clinical Research Implementation Committee (CRIC). CRIC is comprised of permanent members representing various departments–bio-specimen, budget, clinic, infusion, patient management, pharmacy, radiology, regulatory–and ad hoc members from departments including pathology, ophthalmology and dermatology. It meets bimonthly to discuss new protocols and to address questions each department may have about opening and conducting a trial. CRIC meetings are an opportunity to address concerns prior to a trial being reviewed by the institution’s regulatory committees. Since the implementation of the bimonthly committee reviews, Vanderbilt has minimized delays in its trial review process.

When Dr. Radakovic returned to UVA, she created a CRIC committee focused on the following objectives:

  • Provide oversight for oncology trial activation.
  • Clarify resources needed for trial implementation and coordination.
  • Facilitate communication between all internal stakeholders working with the trial, from trial receipt to trial implementation.
  • Assign accountability for all tasks necessary for trial activation and completion.

Dr. Radakovic chairs the bimonthly UVA Cancer Center CRIC meetings which include investigational pharmacists, research nurses, regulatory coordinators, budget managers, and research group managers. Since the committee’s formation, UVA has seen improvement in the Clinical Research Office’s communications with internal stakeholders, leading to smoother and more productive site initiation processes. Also, the CRIC review has helped to prioritize the application of limited trial resources, leading to a broader range of available trials.

Federal Budget Expert Urges Cancer Researchers to Tell Their Stories

There are two foreseeable opportunities for a breakout in federal funding for cancer research, according to Erik Fatemi, Vice President, Cornerstone Government Affairs.  One, during Congress’ “lame duck” session, which ends December 11, legislators will, presumably, make a decision to pass either a year-long budget or a short-term continuing resolution. Two, Congress will soon reconsider whether to raise budget caps for nondefense spending, including biomedical research.

Either way, Fatemi said, cancer researchers have a good story to tell, and they should tell it.

Erik Fatemi discusses the changing landscape for federal funding of biomedical research during the 2014 AACI Annual Meeting. At the panelist table is Dr. Patrick J. Loehrer, director, Indiana University Melvin and Bren Simon Cancer Center.

Erik Fatemi discusses the changing landscape for federal funding of biomedical research during the 2014 AACI Annual Meeting. At the panelist table is Dr. Patrick J. Loehrer, director, Indiana University Melvin and Bren Simon Cancer Center.

Fatemi provided an outlook on National Institutes of Health funding during AACI’s 2014 Annual Meeting, held in Chicago at the end of October. Before joining Cornerstone, a Washington, D.C.-based consulting group with offices in seven other cities, Fatemi served 12 years as a senior staff member on the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education under Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA).  He also served as the subcommittee’s staff director from 2010 – 2013.

Fatemi urged meeting attendees to invite a member of Congress to their own cancer center, noting that it would make the lawmaker proud to be representing such an important enterprise, and it may give them incentive to fight for NIH funding.  Fatemi recommended that cancer researchers explain what they would love to do with their research, if sufficient funds were available.

“Don’t just say, ‘We need more money,’” Fatemi said. “Say, ‘We’re on the cusp of this amazing breakthrough, and we need your help.’”

Putting NIH in the context of overall government funding, Fatemi explained that “discretionary appropriations,” which include NIH, are divided into 12 annual appropriations bills, the largest of which, the defense appropriation, covers about half of all discretionary spending. NIH is a large component of the Labor, Health and Human Services bill, comprising about one-sixth of it.  However, NIH struggles to compete for funding with other good priorities within the bill, like education. Since its budget was doubled between 1998 and 2003, NIH has lost almost a quarter of its purchasing power, Fatemi noted.

Hopeful that the word is out and that legislators realize there is a serious problem with biomedical research funding in this country, Fatemi said he believes that NIH can succeed in attracting more support, despite the tight fiscal environment.  Growing concerns about the impact of budget cuts on young researchers, innovation, and global competitiveness may set up NIH as an exception to Washington’s budget-trimming ways.

Fatemi noted that the recent Ebola outbreak created a new wrinkle in the bipartisan support for NIH funding, with Democrats and Republicans clashing over the impact of budget cuts on the development of a vaccine. But he said he hoped that controversy would settle down soon.

Emily Smith, AACI Communications Intern

Status Quo … Again?

The holidays are just around the corner and the 113th Congress is slowly coming to a close.  It would be easy for us to settle for the status quo at the end of the session and beginning of the season–a short-term continuing resolution (CR) while cozied up next to a warm fire.

U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree in 1964. Source: Architect of the Capitol.

But not so fast… the first two weeks of December will be critical for legislative action. House and Senate Appropriations Committee members and their staffers have worked diligently and collaboratively to make progress toward finalizing the fiscal year (FY) 2015 spending bills.  It is unknown what the budget figure for NIH will be or if an omnibus bill is possible given tensions since Election Day, but current funding will expire on December 11, leaving Congressional leaders in a time crunch.  If an omnibus bill is not drafted in the first two weeks of December, it is likely Congress will once again use a short-term CR and leave FY2015 decisions to the 114th Congress.

We cannot settle for the status quo again, nor can we leave spending decisions to brand new legislators who have yet to know their constituents wishes and the needs of their cancer centers. Congress must pass a FY2015 spending bill before December 11.

Please contact your Members of Congress in the coming days and weeks and urge them to collaborate with their colleagues in order to pass a FY2015 spending bill.  The patients receiving treatments at our nation’s cancer centers depend on it.

Jennifer W. Pegher, AACI Government Relations Manager

Dr. Khleif Testifies Before Congress


khleif-400-271x180Samir N. Khleif, MD, director of AACI-member GRU Cancer Center at Georgia Regents University, testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies on Tuesday, March 25. Dr. Khleif, a respected researcher and advocate in the cancer community, stressed the need for increased National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding for cancer research and the need for more funding devoted to the elimination of cancer health disparities, particularly among minority and economically disadvantaged populations. Dr. Khleif requested that the Subcommittee propose a budget of $32 billion for the NIH in FY2015, in order to keep the brightest scientists at cancer centers focused on biomedical breakthroughs. GRU Cancer Center at Georgia Regents University is focused on reducing the burden of cancer in the State of Georgia. A list of hearing witnesses can be found by visiting this link. A GRU press release about Dr. Khleif’s appearance is here.

Cancer Centers, Biomedical Research Require Vigorous Federal Support

Dr. Ronald DePinho

Dr. Ronald DePinho

In budget recommendations released March 4, President Barack Obama requested an increase of less than 1% ($970 million) for the National Institutes of Health (NIH); $200 million above Fiscal Year 2014, but a funding level below that of FY12. The proposal includes $4.931 billion for the National Cancer Institute (NCI), an increase of $7.5 million (0.2 percent) over FY14.

AACI greatly appreciates the president’s ongoing strong support for biomedical research and his willingness to increase NIH funding. However, his budget proposal falls far short of the inflation rate of 2.9 percent, a figure that NIH projected last year for the Biomedical Research and Development Price Index (BRDPI) for FY15.

AACI recommends a NIH budget of $32 billion for FY15 through the Labor-HHS Appropriations Subcommittees, nearly $2 billion more than the president’s proposal.  A flat budget for NIH, and ultimately the NCI, will only slow innovation and discovery.

Speaking last month at a meeting of the AACI Government Relations Forum at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, in Houston, center president Ronald DePinho, MD, underscored the need for increased federal funding for cancer research, noting that cancer incidence in the U.S. is projected to increase 45 percent between today and 2030.

“The major solutions for our patients will come from scientific innovations that will lead to transformation in cancer prevention, early detection and definitive cures,” Dr. DePinho said. “And our academic medical centers are the engines for such discoveries. It is critical that we vigorously support these national treasures to deal with the onslaught of people who will need cancer services.”

Welcome to AACI CancerBlog

ImageThe Association of American Cancer Institutes is proud to work with 95 leading cancer research centers in the United States.  AACI’s membership roster includes National Cancer Institute-designated centers and academic-based cancer research programs that receive NCI support.

Our cancer centers have been pioneers in the discovery of new breakthrough therapies and treatment options for cancer patients.  As executive director, I have had the privilege of working closely with cancer center directors across the country.  AACI strives each day to be a gateway for collaboration between cancer centers.

In its early stages, AACI CancerBlog will revolve around viewpoints pertaining to Congressional action and public policy and their relation to scientific advancement. As the blog develops we aim to feature guest contributors and input from AACI staff and other like-minded organizations on topics of interest to the cancer research community. We encourage your comments and hope this blog will provide valuable commentary to you.

Please feel free to submit feedback and potential topics for the blog, and thank you in advance for your interest and support.

Barbara Duffy Stewart, MPH
Executive Director
Association of American Cancer Institutes