Tough Choices in Research Funding

When you’re an organization that’s been around nearly 100 years and you’re the biggest one on the block, you tend to take some heat. It’s not a part of the job we relish, but it does force us to look deeply at our work. And each time, we come away strengthened, more aware, and more conscious of what we must do to prevent deaths and suffering from cancer.

Perhaps the most prominent criticism we get is that we don’t fund enough research on one or another cancer, be it childhood cancer, prostate cancer, or most recently lung cancer. It’s understandable and entirely appropriate that people with an interest in one cancer in particular would push for more attention and funding of that cancer. Just as important is noting that with limited funds to support the many promising investigators who turn to the American Cancer Society for help, our panel of experts (which you can read about here) has to make some very tough choices.

The primary distinction we make when deciding whether to fund a proposal is not which cancer it focuses on, but: How strong is the proposal? Is there a solid basis to back up the work? Will it explore a previously unanswered question that could hold real hope to people with cancer? We focus on new, innovative ideas, making the funding of early career investigators a national priority. We also follow a model of “investigator initiated” grants, meaning trained researchers from around the U.S come to us with the best novel ideas they can to seek our support.

How has that approach worked? We’re proud to say that in its 65 years, our extramural research program has dedicated more than $3.6 billion to cancer research, and has funded, mostly early in their careers, 44 researchers who have gone on to win the Nobel Prize, medicine’s highest honor.

Looking back over the years, the Society’s funding has been a part of research that has led to new drugs to treat lung cancer, including Tarceva ® (Erlotinib), Avastin® (Bevacizumab) and Alimta® (Pemetrexed). Our strong commitment to lung cancer research includes studies to find better diagnostic tests, to find targeted therapies, and to understand the roots of cancer. The Society currently funds 94 grants totaling more than $52 million related to lung cancer, making the American Cancer Society the top nongovernmental supporter of lung cancer research in the United States. A substantial proportion of the research the Society funds into lung cancer (40%) is directed to find the answers of the underlying biologic mechanism and causes of the disease. The rest funds a broad range of areas, from early detection, to prevention, treatment, and survivorship issues of lung cancer. For more on our efforts, read here. These figures do not include our own, vital internal research program led by a group of world-class scientists in epidemiology, surveillance, health services, international tobacco control, and behavioral science.

Why do we fund this research? It’s because the statistics on lung cancer are stark, and daunting. They show that while the 1-year survival rate for lung cancer increased from 35% in 1975-1979 to 42% in 2002-2005, largely due to improvements in surgical techniques and combined therapies, the 5-year survival rate for all stages combined is still only 16%. The fact that lung cancer has proved to be one of the most difficult cancers to treat effectively compels us to keep looking for innovative ways to fight the disease.

If lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death, why don’t we fund even more? We strongly believe money should not be directed away from basic research that has been judged as “the best” in order to fund other grants –not judged to be the best—directed towards a particular cancer. It’s critical to note that basic research has applications to many cancers, and also that promising breakthroughs for cancer often come from the study of an entirely unrelated cancer, or even a different disease. To us, this reinforces the need to fund the best, most promising proposals. In addition, many top cancer researchers started out studying a different area of cancer. So the early career researcher whose work we help make possible today may one day move into an entirely new area of promise.

Some of the questions about our work focus on the claim we ignore lung cancer in people who have never smoked. In fact, our researchers have been at the forefront of efforts to raise awareness of this issue. It was an American Cancer Society study, for instance, that found that lung cancer among never-smokers, if measured separately, would be among the ten leading causes of cancer death.

Our accomplished research program continues to fund active research to help all people with lung cancer, no matter the cause.

About David Sampson

I am the director of medical and scientific communications for the American Cancer Society national home office.
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3 Responses to Tough Choices in Research Funding

  1. My family and I have been recipients and supporters for many years. My Dad and all his siblings died from one form or another and we have had from skin to bone on our immediate family.
    I am 6 year breast cancer survivor and 2 year skin cancer survivor.
    I know that the ACS works hard for all and am proud to be associated with an honored and hard working program such as this
    Please keep up the good works and know that ya’ll are appreciated and prayed for every day.
    Kathryn Gowin, Emory, Texas

  2. Amy May says:

    I read this post last week and have been thinking a lot about it. ACS is a great organization and has helped so many people. And, anyone who has suffered watching a loved one fight cancer, as I am doing now, does not wish that specific cancer, or any cancer, on anyone. I applaud any effort to fight any and all cancers. I also agree that you need to fund promising research.

    Having said that, it is not wrong for those of us affected by lung cancer to want more attention paid to it, given the comparative lack of improvement in survival rates over the years and the staggering number of people, including non-smokers, affected. My 31 year old, non-smoking, sister in law wasn’t diagnosed until Stage 4, because so little is known about this disease. It’s not wrong for us to question where the money is going. Researchers will follow money and you are in a position to help guide them towards this devastating disease. I am so glad for the work that you have done. I just wasn’t sure after reading your post if the strategy towards lung cancer is remaining the same? Because, given the statistics, it appears to me that we need a better, more proactive strategy for lung cancer. Thank you.

  3. Pingback: skin cancer research

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