Learning you have cancer can be devastating. That will happen to nearly 1.7 million Americans this year. While not all of them will survive the disease, many will, thanks to decades of consistent national investments in biomedical research.
The new administration’s recently proposed “budget blueprint” aims to slash the nation’s investment in biomedical research by nearly 20 percent. This makes no sense for our patients, our citizens, or our scientists.
The federal government’s investments in biomedical research, which directly support the work of American scientists, have delivered longer, fuller lives for people with cancer and other serious diseases, not only in our country but around the world. It has made our nation the undisputed leader in biomedical research, creating jobs and economic opportunity across the country. These investments have placed us on the cusp of even greater progress due to rapid advances in the fields of genetics, precision medicine, and immunology.
Modern cancer treatment presents a remarkable, but far-from-finished story of American ingenuity and resolve. A half-century ago, cancer was poorly understood. Doctors debated whether the few available chemotherapies were even worth using, since they worked only rarely and subjected people to intolerable side effects and hospitalization.
In the 1960s, though, cancer research began to bring meaningful improvements in cancer treatment. In 1971, Congress threw its weight behind the search for cures with the National Cancer Act, ushering in decades of substantial federal investment in research.
Progress in fighting cancer and other serious diseases takes years due to the necessary research involved, but the results are clear and remarkable. The nation’s cancer death rate has fallen by 25 percent since 1991, and we’ve averted some 2.1 million cancer deaths since then. More than 15 million people who have survived cancer are alive today, compared with about 7 million in 1991 and only about 3 million in 1971. People with some of the most common cancers — like breast, colorectal, and blood cancers — routinely live for years after being diagnosed with cancer and many are cured of their disease. Even some of the most previously daunting cancers, like advanced melanoma and lung cancer, are responding to recent advances in precision medicine and immunotherapy.
However, we haven’t done enough. Nearly 600,000 Americans will die of cancer this year, and only innovative research will reduce or eliminate this terrible burden on our society.
Cancer is just one example of the progress we have made. The health of Americans has improved in countless areas where NIH-funded research has played a vital role in understanding the disease process and has enabled the development of more effective and less toxic treatments. The agency’s budget is one the most fruitful federal investments ever. If our leaders truly want to put America first, they must not abandon the legacy of the country’s bold scientific leadership. Cutting support for American researchers and scientists who are pursuing new cures for disease will eviscerate the research enterprise on which millions of Americans count when diagnosed with a potentially deadly or debilitating disease.
The NIH pursues research that only the government can take on. It can be the sometimes risky, pioneering work that generates fundamental discoveries and eventually finds new cures. It can be the comparative studies of competing drugs. NIH funding has made possible the prevention and screening studies that pharmaceutical companies have no incentive to undertake but that have significantly helped reduce cancer deaths. Federal funding has made possible the trials that help women survive breast cancer without disfiguring surgery; the studies that proved that chemotherapy can save the lives of people with breast and colorectal cancers; and prevention studies that matter to anyone who has ever considered a mammogram, colonoscopy, or a chest CT scan.
This research is also a key driver of American economic strength. The funding provided by the NIH to communities around this country supports more than 350,000 jobs and contributes some $60 billion annually in economic activity. In public and private partnerships, NIH funding also drives to the market novel products for diagnosis and treatment, not only improving patient outcomes but serving as an economic engine, with estimates that it results in double the return on investment. These are benefits that any administration should want to sustain.
When our leaders support medical research, progress happens. When Congress boldly doubled the NIH budget in the 1990s, we saw a surge in advances in the years that followed. When it let the budget stagnate through the early 2000s, we saw fewer scientists entering biomedical research, fewer studies launched, and fewer patients participating in the kinds of clinical trials that address the important questions that can improve patient care. We also stand to lose an entire generation of future researchers.
Congress recently signaled its support for biomedical research with the 21st Century Cures Act, passed with bipartisan support. The act provides much-needed financing and a host of strategies to capitalize on the incredible potential of precision medicine. The impact of this legislation will be tremendous — if Congress and the administration follow through.
But funding for the act is not guaranteed, and the newly revealed White House budget proposal — regardless of the support it will get in Congress — is a worrisome sign. With our rapidly aging population, cancer cases are projected to grow by nearly a third in the next decade. We urge our leaders in Washington to carefully rethink any proposed cuts in NIH funding.
Abandoning tomorrow’s cancer patients is no way to put America, or Americans, first.
Daniel F. Hayes, MD, is president of the American Society of Clinical Oncology and professor of breast cancer research at the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center.