How the Sequester Hurts Cancer Patients

Budget cuts are slicing into clinical trials.

Genetic lab.
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Clinical trials are often a patient’s only viable treatment option for surviving cancer – a disease that kills 1,500 people every day in this country. But haphazard federal budget cuts, a consequence of the so-called "sequester" that was initiated in March, threaten to stall or eliminate critical clinical trials nationwide and further threaten important basic laboratory research. For the one in two men and one in three women in America who will hear those three most dreaded words, “You have cancer,” in their lifetime, research provides more than the promise of new treatments and therapies; it offers hope for beating a disease that was once considered a virtual death sentence.

The Ohio State University’s Comprehensive Cancer Center-James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute conducts groundbreaking clinical trials for cancer research. Due to mandated federal budget cuts earlier this year, the National Cancer Institute was already forced to reduce by half the number of participants in clinical trials at OSU. Under sequestration, these trials will likely be completely eliminated this year, affecting patients undergoing treatment for leukemia, lymphoma, breast cancer and a variety of other forms of cancer.

In addition to the impact on clinical trials, there could be cuts to student and post-doctoral positions as well. The sequestration will negatively impact research, innovation and the ability to provide services and resources to patients and the university community. Equally disturbing, it will decrease opportunities for scientific advancement and job creation at the university and other research institutions nationally.

[See a collection of political cartoons on health care.]

Research labs across the country were already operating on extremely lean budgets. Sequestration cuts to the bone. These across-the-board cuts are short-sighted and could have serious financial implications, not only at OSU and other universities and institutions where federal dollars have supported research, but in surrounding communities as well.

The sequester could lead to 20,500 fewer research-related jobs as research center directors are forced to eliminate existing positions, are prohibited from creating new ones, and have to scale back the purchase of research-critical supplies and equipment. Every $1 invested in cancer research yields more than $2 in economic activity for communities across the country, making the sequester’s funding reductions tantamount to a $3 billion decrease in economic activity nationally.

Before sequestration, the National Institutes of Health was already funding only a small fraction of the promising research grant applications it received. The director of the NIH recently announced that more than 700 fewer new research grants will be funded this year alone because of sequestration. Continually reducing the amount of research supported by the federal government will cause irreparable harm to the research field in this country – forcing scientists to pursue funding in countries such as the United Kingdom, Germany and Singapore that are prioritizing research even in austere times, or to change professions altogether. These cuts further discourage future generations of would-be researchers from entering the field in the first place.

Historically, fear of cancer went beyond diagnosis to the grueling therapies used to treat the disease. Treatment often involved therapies that attacked a patient’s entire body, leveling brutal side effects by attacking good cells along with the bad. For a number of cancers, that reality has changed. Treatments are harnessing an individual’s own immune system to attack the cancer cells, and targeted therapies go after the cancer rather than the entire body, minimizing side effects altogether. Vaccines and early detection tools can prevent some cancers entirely.

[See a collection of political cartoons on sequestration and the fiscal cliff.]

However, some of the deadliest cancers still vex scientists. Progress in understanding the genetic makeup of specific cancers has brought us closer to knowing how to treat certain types of ovarian and brain cancer, historically grim diagnoses. Through cancer research, more cancer patients are becoming cancer survivors – literally 13.7 million strong. But that progress is in jeopardy.