Cuts to Cancer Research Loom Large

If enacted, what could they mean for the future of oncology?

Naveed Saleh, MD, MS


June 16, 2017

Repercussions of Cancer Cuts

Cancer researchers are universally and deeply perturbed by proposed cuts to funding. "Our community is sitting on pins and needles, not knowing whether we can continue with our trainees, continue with our experiments, and continue with experimental therapies for our patients," said Caligiuri. "The proposed nearly 20% cut in funding by the President would be beyond comprehension and reverse so many outstanding achievements that we have been able to make in biomedical research, despite even flat funding."

Ursula A. Matulonis, MD, medical director and program leader of the Medical Gynecologic Oncology Program at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, echoed these concerns. "The NCI and NIH funding is so crucial," she said in an interview. "It clearly funds basic research, but it also funds translational research and then clinical research. Having all three of those aspects curtailed is not good in many ways. It is not good in terms of new discoveries that are based on academic scientists and researchers working together."

In just one example of what proper funding can accomplish, Matulonis points to immunotherapy research conducted by Dana-Farber scientists in the 1990s that led to the discovery of programmed death ligand 1 (PD-L1) proteins on the surface of cancer cells.[5] These PD-L1 proteins allow cancer cells to multiply without interference from the immune system. Trailblazing immunotherapy research has laid the groundwork for clinical trials testing PD-L1–blocking agents.

You're going to effectively stop the flow of young junior scientists into academic labs.

Furthermore, cuts in cancer research funding will limit opportunities for up-and-coming researchers who need this support. "You're going to effectively stop the flow of young junior scientists into academic labs," said Matulonis. "So if you're in high school or college and you're thinking about a career in science, if you see that the funding landscape and the funding future are bleak, then you're not going to go into that field. You're choking off the science supply chain that's going to feed the next generation of scientists."

To help junior scientists with innovative ideas get a footing in the field, Caligiuri suggests that 20% of researchers who apply for funding should be awarded grants, instead of the 9% who are currently funded. In addition to more directly supporting experimental therapies for patients, federal funding also helps pay the salaries of thousands of people, including researchers, research assistants, and research nurses, as well as students and trainees at the undergraduate, graduate, and postgraduate levels.

"When investigators, scientists, and clinical researchers have to continuously write grants to cover people's salaries, that's time taken away from them doing their work, whether it's in the laboratory or coming up with new translational ideas or clinical research ideas," said Matulonis.