Stimulus act increases money for cancer research

March 19, 2009
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The economic recovery act signed into law Feb. 17 increases funding for the National Institutes of Health and the National Cancer Institute and presents a “tremendous opportunity” for the biomedical research community, according to John E. Niederhuber, M.D., director of the National Cancer Institute.

Niederhuber was in townWednesday to speak on the topic of “Cancer as an Organ System: The Tumor Microenvironment” at the Van Andel Institute as part of the institute’s Han-mo Koo Seminar Series.

Under the new act, NIH will receive approximately $10.4 billion for use in fiscal 2009 and 2010, of which $8.2 billion is earmarked for research. NCI will receive approximately $1.26 billion of the $8.2 billion.

“I believe this sizable figure is a profound affirmation from President Obama and the American people of the importance of tackling the cancer burden and a sign of their confidence that we are well suited to meet that challenge,” Niederhuber wrote in the Feb. 24 edition of NCI’s Cancer Bulletin. “As you are well aware, I continually remind our leaders in the executive and legislative bodies of our government that an investment in cancer research, whether in basic scientific discovery or behavioral studies of populations, is an investment in a model for gaining an understanding of all diseases.”

NCI is the federal government’s principal agency for cancer research and training. It has a budget of nearly $5 billion and coordinates the National Cancer Program, which conducts research and supports training, research and the dissemination of health information, among other programs. The NCI supports and coordinates research projects through research grants and cooperative agreements and supports a national network of cancer centers.

Niederhuber said the stimulus package allows NCI to fund more research grants and stop the negative drain on funds that inflation has caused.

“It will allow us to bring more people into training and will allow us to get more new novel agents out of the pipeline faster,” he said after his lecture at the VAI. “I think all of this makes a difference, ultimately, at the patient level. Yes, we will be able to do more science and, yes, we’ll be able to get more of that science to people and get new novel agents that are highly targeted into early phase trials.”

NCI will certainly be awarding more grants, and the number probably will be higher than in the past, Niederhuber said. Most NCI grants are for three, four or five years, so if the institute significantly increases the number of grants it awards in 2009 — say, it puts 100 new four-year grants in the pipeline — 90 of those grantees will come back in 2013 to seek funding again under NCI’s competitive renewal process.

“One of the things that all of us worry about is that, by funding a huge number of grants now, how are we going to manage that expectation for renewal four or five years down the road? We don’t want to create unreal expectations that will cause a lot of disappointment or heartache later on,” Niederhuber said.

He said the stimulus funding will allow the institute to increase the pay line on its grants, to fund an increasing number of young, new scientific investigators and allow the institute to train more individuals. It might even help academic institutions such as Michigan State University and University of Michigan recruit new faculty: Faculty recruitment has basically been placed on hold across the country due to dwindling endowments, he said, so the infusion of new funding might help.

Niederhuber said he doesn’t know exactly when the stimulus funding will be made available to NIH and NCI because the White House still has to sort everything out. He said the institute continues to meet with NIH leadership three times a week to discuss the various research opportunities they might fund with the money.

“The bottom line is this: NIH and NCI leadership are prepared to do our part toward the economic recovery of this great country by quickly distributing stimulus funds via a science- and merit-driven process and, in so doing, supporting not just new science but crafting new approaches that alter the course of cancer while preserving and creating jobs,” Niederhuber said in the NCI Cancer Bulletin.

According to Niederhuber, an investment in research does more than just create new scientific knowledge and advances in clinical medicine. That investment also translates into support for research projects at institutions large and small, and those projects in turn create jobs and a plethora of business opportunities by generating patents, products and biotechnology start-up companies. Niederhuber said, on average, a single NIH research grant supports seven jobs, and according to one analysis, for every $1 spent on research in a given community, $2.25 in local economic activity is generated.

As Niederhuber sees it, the United States’ strength in the past stemmed from its investment in higher education, which led to new knowledge and technological innovation. In the past couple of decades, he said, the nation has been more focused on building equity and less on building science and technology — so much so that some of its global competitors took the lead. He believes America needs to get back to investing in young people’s education and training in science.

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