Sequestration’s impact on cancer could last for generations

March 8, 2013 | by Hiu Chung So

All Americans will feel the blow of the sequestration’s cuts in the federal budget, but cancer clinicians, researchers and patients face a double whammy. The cuts will impact not just current efforts to treat and prevent cancer, but future efforts as well.

Cuts to  basic scientific research will have repercussions for years to come, warns Linda Malkas, Ph.D., deputy director of basic research at City of Hope. Cuts to basic scientific research will have repercussions for years to come, warns Linda Malkas, deputy director of basic research at City of Hope.

Trimming 5 percent from the National Cancer Institute (NCI)’s $5 billion budget might not sound like much, but the expected $250 million loss could cut grants for new research by 40 percent. That's because much of the current funding is already committed to ongoing, multi-year studies, according to NCI's director Harold Varmus, M.D.

And the greater competition for the remaining funds may lead to a brain drain of talent as promising researchers look for more lucrative and less stressful lines of work. Such an impact will be long-term.

“That sounds dramatic, but it’s true. Some brilliant young scientists will just say there are easier ways to make a living than cancer research,” said Linda Malkas, Ph.D., deputy director of basic research at City of Hope, in a Daily Beast article.

Varmus agreed, noting that the strong competition for limited funds is driving researchers to other industries and even other countries. The current rate of success for a NCI grant application is 14 percent, a record low, he said.

"The pace of research is slower than it could be and should be," he said at a National Press Club conference.

And cancer research is not the only way in which the field of cancer medicine will be affected.

Because the sequestration cuts are across-the-board, they will also impact the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which administers numerous cancer education, screening and prevention programs.

Chris Hansen, president of the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Action Network, wrote on his blog that CDC budget cuts would mean fewer screenings for breast, cervical and colorectal cancers, as well as cuts to tobacco control and obesity prevention programs.

With new cancer cases already expected to rise due to an aging baby boomer population, cuts to current cancer prevention and detection programs might lead to even higher incidence and death rates for years to come.

“Funding for cancer research and prevention programs is taking a dangerous hit,” Hansen wrote. Echoing the sentiments of countless cancer patients, survivors, researchers and physicians, he continued: “Congress needs to work in a bipartisan effort to quickly restore funding for cancer research and prevention programs and make the fight against cancer a top national priority.”

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