It's dangerous to limit funds for basic research into new cancer therapies just as a tsunami of baby boomers in their cancer-prone years is about to hit, Harvard scientist Joan Brugge told a Senate Appropriations subcommittee yesterday.
Brugge spoke as part of a consortium of nine academic institutions fighting for more funding.
"There's going to be a huge impact in terms of human suffering," she said in an interview. "It's taken a while to understand this complex disease, but now we have a blueprint for how to develop therapies. Now is not the time to retreat."
Every basic science department at Harvard Medical School had at least two or three faculty members whose grants were not funded during the current funding squeeze, she said. Three of her NIH grants from 2002 and 2003 will be up for renewal this year.
The budget for the National Institutes of Health has been flat since fiscal 2003, which amounts to a 13 percent decline after accounting for inflation. Nationwide, grant amounts were cut by as much as 29 percent in 2006.
The eventual success rate for grant applications is 20 percent -- sometimes after multiple submissions. Only about 10 percent of grants get funded their first time through peer review. That means even the highest-rated grants in any one funding cycle don't make it through, she said.
"It's like getting an A on an exam and then flunking," Brugge said.
That can discourage young researchers and strain laboratories as both the need and opportunity are growing for translating basic science into new cancer therapies, Brugge and the consortium argued. Lapses in funding mean labs have to let employees go and to struggle to maintain momentum.
"We're giving up our ability to do clinical trials and change the science of medicine," Elias Zerhouni, director of the NIH, said at the hearing.
Senator Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat who heads the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on labor, health and human services, education, and related agencies, and Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the senior Republican on the panel, criticized the president's NIH budget proposal.
"I assure everyone here, Senator Specter and I will not allow these cuts to take place," Harkin told the committee.
The kind of research that translates into cancer treatments is expensive but necessary, Brugge said. Not only will it capitalize on past investments in research, but it will also meet the needs of the aging population most likely to develop cancer, she said.
Researchers are exuberant about advances based on a deeper molecular understanding of cancer, she said. They can design drugs for cancer patients based on a better understanding of specific defects in several types of tumors.
Recent successes include Herceptin, which selectively treats breast cancer tumors that produce a certain protein, Gleevec for a certain kind of leukemia, Tarceva for some lung tumors, and Tykerb, approved last week for certain forms of breast cancer.
"We cannot afford to stand still," Brugge said. "The demographics are against us."
Besides Harvard, the consortium members are the University of California, Columbia University, Johns Hopkins University, Partners HealthCare, the University of Texas at Austin, Washington University in St. Louis, the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and Yale University.
Their report, "Within Our Grasp -- or Slipping Away?" is available online at hms.harvard.edu/public/news/nih_funding.pdf.
Material from Bloomberg was included in this report.