National Cancer Institute loses Funding, Hurting Breast Cancer Research

Kevin Knopf, MD Health Guide
  • Our annual meeting is this weekend, so I hope to have some good news regarding breast cancer treatment in future posts.  I also have a backlog of questions that I will answer from readers – please keep those coming.

    More importantly, I wanted to make sure you knew about two disconcerting bits of cancer news, which have made their way to the lay press.

    The first news item is that the National Institute of Health, and the National Cancer Institute (the largest branch of the NIH) had a decline in their funding in 2007.  This decline in research power was called “extremely discouraging” by Dr Allen Lichter, the president of our professional organization.  A bit of an understatement.
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    The NCI funds cooperative group clinical research trials that you probably have access to at your oncologist's office.  For example, the clinical trials that showed giving herceptin adjuvantly can increase cure rate by 40% was available to our patients through this NCI funding mechanism.  So a cut in the budget at a time when we would all like to see a raise hurts this effort.

    In the long run, scientists and researchers count on the National Cancer Institute to fund research, particularly the “basic science” or “bench” research that is done in molecular biology to elucidate the mechanism of breast cancer.  It is here that the big breakthroughs in diagnosis and treatment are likely to occur.  Most of the new breast cancer drugs that are developed (largely by pharmaceutical and biotechnological companies) are successful because of efforts in basic science research that identify which targets to hit.

    For those contemplating a career as a cancer researcher, the NCI funding rate was abysmally low at 10% of all projects.  Now with the decrease in the budget, it will be lower, and our chance for long-term progress will suffer as a result.

    How can you help?  There are other agencies that fund breast cancer research that can use donations. And there is always the tactic of contacting your Congresswoman/man, Senators and expressing concern.

    There is a 2nd financial vulnerability that concerns how community oncology is paid for.  It is very complicated and may be the subject of another column.

    The 3rd bit of disturbing news was a study predicting a major shortage of medical oncologists by the year 2020.  It looks sound – many oncologists are starting to retire, and the number being trained after medical school is not rising fast enough to keep up with estimated demand.

    This is not entirely surprising – medical oncology is a demanding specialty that requires 6 or 7 years of training after medical school.  It is a difficult field emotionally for many physicians, requires many hours of reading a week to stay current, has long hours (including weekend call, night call) and a high stress level.  There is supposedly a high “burnout” rate.

    For those of us in the field it’s a fantastically rewarding career emotionally and intellectually.  I know my family gets short changed because of my career choice and I can understand why “lifestyle fields” like Dermatology, Ophthalmology and Radiology are such popular specialty choices of graduating medical students.  I’m happy with my career choice and hope that enough medical students will consider it in the future to ensure quality cancer care continues in America.

  • Still, the group that commissioned the survey didn’t offer any solutions to the undersupply problem and didn’t sound optimistic.  Stay tuned.
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Published On: June 01, 2007