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

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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