Friday, May 22, 2015

Are We Losing Young Researchers?

It’s difficult for the general public to understand how hard it is for the scientific community to make profound discoveries in the laboratory.  Sure, it’s easy to be excited when an announcement is made about some game changing breakthrough.  But it’s not so easy to see how hard it is to get there.  We hear a lot now about the genetics of cancer, the genetics of resistance, and the genomics of a patient that is leading us to “precision medicine”.   It’s bold, and holds so much promise, exactly what we all hope for.  But of course, the boldest ideas have the longest road to travel.  The out-there science is slow to translate into real-life cures for patients.  

As I discussed in my last post, there is a real crisis in the cancer research field and in science in general, because young scientists and those who want to be scientists, are finding it difficult to get financial support. The U.S. must recognize that if there are no young scientists, there will be no pipeline, there be no innovation in the long term. I believe that philanthropic support is the answer to help keep these young promising stars in the field.  The funding gap that exists is not going to be solved by the government, big pharma or venture capital.  
Take Dr. Laurence Cooper, from MD Anderson Cancer Center.  When I met him last year, he talked about how fortunate he was “to stand on the shoulders of giants, men and women who’ve come before me”.  He talked about the need for philanthropic support to help him "think of things that are novel and new and untested.”  And through philanthropic support, scientists like Dr. Cooper can bring young, promising post docs into their laboratories, further the exploration of risky new ideas and mentor the next generation of scientists.  As Cooper says “it’s hard and we need backers.”  I agree.

So when you read about Dr. Cooper’s blockbuster immunotherapy licensing deal , and how he is now the CEO of Boston-based Ziopharm, remember that he was once a young, promising scientist, and this didn’t just happen overnight.  The National Foundation for Cancer Research has been supporting his work at MD Anderson for many years, and it’s exciting to see the results of his work. It will only be through continuous funding that young scientists will stay on the path to being the next Dr. Laurence Cooper 10 or 20 years from now.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Time to Move Beyond the Ribbons?

This past week, I had the pleasure of meeting Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey and Harvard Medical School Professor of Genetics, Dr. Fred Alt. They were both in Washington, DC for the presentation of the 2015 NFCR Szent-Györgyi Prize for Progress in Cancer Research, which was awarded to Dr. Alt and keynoted by Sen. Markey. 

The common theme I heard from both of these distinguished leaders was captured in a Huffington Post article written by Sam Stein, who attended the event. Stein succinctly wrote that “U.S. Science has never been more imperiled”. He noted that the lack of funding for basic scientific research not only prevents new discoveries, but it also means that we are losing promising scientists whose work can’t get funded.  

10 years ago, nearly a third of qualified research was funded by NIH.  Now that number is only 14% (actually even lower for oncology, near 9%).  As Sen. Markey said, “sadly, support for scientific research in our country is fragile”.  And when I asked Dr. Alt what his biggest concern was for the future of scientific discovery, he lamented the prospects of losing good young people from the field entirely. 

Since 2003, the NIH budget has seen a 20% cut in purchasing power for new grants. It’s time to move past the ribbons, and recognize that this is not a zero sum game.  As a lung cancer survivor, I care a lot about the need for research in this area.  But cancer research science has evolved to where we should not be looking just at cancer type, or organ-specific research.  Cancer is a genetic disease—that is, cancer is caused by changes to genes that control the way our cells function, especially how they grow and divide. These changes include mutations in the DNA that makes up our genes. Genetic changes that increase cancer risk can be inherited from our parents, and can also be acquired as the result of errors that occur as cells divide during a person’s lifetime.  

Awareness is great, but we need to get serious about cancer research funding.  No matter what ribbon you wear, let’s realize that we truly are ALL in this together.  30 years from now, if we have lost a generation of promising scientists due to lack of resources, what progress will we have made in the fight against cancer?