Cuts in Research Funding Come at a Time of Great Promise

By: Nancy E.Davidson, M.D.

There was good news in the fight against cancer this year when the American Cancer Society announced a dramatic decrease in cancer deaths over the last two decades. The 20 percent drop since 1991 represents the dogged work by cancer researchers across the country, whose efforts have led to important advances in our quest to understand and treat these very complicated diseases. Because that’s what makes cancer so difficult: It’s not just one illness with a one-size-fits-all answer.

Recent advancements have given us great promise about our ability to develop and practice evidence-based “precision” or “personalized” medicine – care that is defined by better understanding of the unique attributes of each cancer and each host. But these advances come at a difficult time of constrained resources. Federal funding for biomedical research is on the decline, putting this vibrant part of our economy at risk at a time of great opportunity that should not be squandered.
Much of the work that we do here at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute (UPCI) is realized through the support of federal grants. In fiscal year 2011, the most recent year for which statistics are available, our investigators received more than $48 million from the National Cancer Institute alone. These grants are enabling our researchers to embark on important scientific work that has the promise to help save lives. Among the research under way is the work of Shivendra Singh, Ph.D., professor of Pharmacology and Chemical Biology and associate director of Basic Science at UPCI, who is studying the use of dietary constituents to prevent cancer in preclinical models of prostate cancer with the hope that these findings can be translated into early phase clinical trials. Walter Storkus, Ph.D., a professor of Dermatology and Immunology, is focusing his work on combinatorial immunotherapy for melanoma. While Lin Zhang,Ph.D., associate professor of Pharmacology and Chemical Biology, is looking at the effects of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory agents in colon cancer prevention and Thomas Kensler, Ph.D., professor of Pharmacology and Chemical Biology, wants to understand the role of Nrf2 in cancer chemoprevention. Another researcher, Patrick Moore, M.D., Ph.D., professor of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics, has secured a grant that will advance our knowledge about biomarkers for the Merkel cell virus, one of the seven viruses known to cause cancer in humans (and a virus that Dr. Moore co-discovered with his colleague, Yuan Chang, M.D.)
But now, we’re facing funding challenges that could slow the pace of our important work. That’s why UPCI is proud to support the Rally for Medical Research, taking place today in Washington, D.C., in conjunction with the annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research. The rally will bring together cancer advocates, survivors, clinicians, researchers and others on the steps of the Carnegie Library to raise awareness among the public and policymakers of the importance of funding from the National Institutes of Health. This funding is critical for researchers like us at UPCI in the fight to save lives.
We are at a time of most extraordinary discovery about what makes cancers tick and how we can use this knowledge to overcome cancer. And to do this, resources matter. Maintaining our momentum is absolutely critical and the ability to fund the most promising new ideas from our researchers and clinicians is vital. For this reason, we must continue to receive support from the federal government if truly all of us are committed to our vision of a future without cancer. 

Nancy E. Davidson is the director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute and UPMC CancerCenter.