Scientists and clinicians urged to join in call for greater cancer research funding

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Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, left, and Senator Chris Murphy joined Ann Kurth, dean of the Yale School of Nursing, at the forum.

U.S. Senator Chris Murphy and U.S. Representative Rosa DeLauro, both Democrats, urged biomedical researchers to join with them and other elected representatives to advocate for increased federal biomedical research funding. Their call to action came at a forum at Yale School of Nursing to discuss the National Cancer Moonshot initiative. The initiative, announced by President Obama in Jan. 2016, calls for people in all areas of science and government to work together to find new ways to prevent, diagnose, and treat cancer, in the hopes of eliminating it by 2020.

Murphy said the initiative needs to “take what would have been accomplished in 10 years and do it in five.” He, among many others in politics and science, suggested that funding basic research is the key to accelerating progress.

“Discoveries made from basic research are the building blocks that make the cure possible,” he said. He referenced the recent increase to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) budget, a sum of $2 billion dollars, about 6 percent of the total NIH budget. While he acknowledged that any increase is good after a decade of stagnancy, he hoped to see a steady rise in funding over the years. “Right now, this is about building the political will to get it done,” he said. “We need to exercise our muscles so that a 6 percent increase in funding is just the baseline.”

DeLauro has been a longtime champion of funding for basic science, largely because, as a 30-year survivor of ovarian cancer, she credits biomedical research with saving her life. DeLauro is on the House Appropriations Committee and has long fought for increased NIH funding. She told the crowd of about 80 researchers, clinicians, and others at the forum that collaboration is the only way they can hope to meet the initiative’s goals.

“The goals of the Cancer Moonshot cannot be done by one person, one organization, or one discipline,” she said. “A spirit of collaboration will be essential if we are going to beat cancer.”

Ann Kurth, dean of the Yale School of Nursing and the moderator of the event, echoed DeLauro’s call for cooperation and said, “People from every sector have a role to play in advancing toward the Cancer Moonshot.”

Craig Crews, the Lewis B. Cullman Professor of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology and professor of chemistry; Patricia LoRusso, professor of medicine (medical oncology) and associate director of innovative medicine at Yale Cancer Center; Marianne Davies, assistant professor of nursing; and Dr. Roy Herbst, the Ensign Professor of Medicine (medical oncology) and professor of pharmacology, and chief of medical oncology at Yale Cancer Center, also spoke, bringing up such issues as the importance of “curiosity-driven research” and the need for more funding. With only 8 percent of NIH applications being funded, LoRusso said, the world could be missing out on a lot of good ideas. She said, “90 percent of people with great ideas will never be able to see their ideas come to fruition.”

Researchers and physicians in the audience also brought forward their concerns, like the NIH grant application process, which they said is fraught with excessive complications and red tape. A lack of funding, several speakers said, is driving away junior faculty. Myrna Watanabe, a freelance grant writer, said, “We are losing a generation of brilliant, creative people.” David Stern, associate director of shared resources at Yale Cancer Center, agreed, saying, “Talented young scientists are turning away from careers in research.”

Some researchers said that the NIH grant process makes it too difficult for unconventional research groups to get funding. Lewis Bender, CEO of Intensity Therapeutics, a biotech company in Westport, Conn., said that it’s challenging for his small company to compete for the same grants as larger institutions like Yale. “Innovation can come from anywhere,” he argued.

Dr. Peter Glazer, chair and the Robert E. Hunter Professor of Therapeutic Radiology, added that it’s often unclear how scientific discoveries will affect a given field of medicine, and that discoveries are made “by people who had no idea where [research] would lead.”

Murphy and DeLauro envision this forum as the beginning of a collaboration between the state’s physicians, researchers, and government officials. “Don’t be risk adverse when it comes to engaging in the political process,” said DeLauro. They both emphasized that when it comes to funding, government bodies should be aligned with the needs of scientists.” Murphy extended the invitation to the researchers and physicians in the crowd, saying, “Accept this is a beginning of a conversation.”

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