February 3, 2012 (Washington, DC) — At a congressional briefing on 40 years of progress in cancer research, Congressman Brian Bilbray (R-California) called for bipartisan support from his peers to ensure the continued funding of cancer research.
"Friends don't let friends kill medical research," he said at the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) briefing he cosponsored with Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-Connecticut) and Dianne Feinstein (D-California). Most of the attendees were congressional staffers. "That means Republicans need to go across the aisle and be educated about the public sector investment, and Democrats need to be indoctrinated and reminded that the overwhelming majority of research is privately funded," he said.
Making cancer research a national priority is something all lawmakers can get behind, he explained, adding that it isn't a question of being on the right, the left, or the center.
"You just have to be on the field and take responsibility for your part of the game," he said. "If that means facing off with some right-wing conservative about the fact that we need public funding to be able to have those investments, that's your job," he explained. Those on the left should make sure to maximize the health benefits of every dollar invested.
Rep. DeLauro, the ranking member dealing with appropriations for Labor, Health, Human Services, and Education, took a different tack. She compared the 4000 women who die each year of cervical cancer to the 3000 people lost in the United States on 9/11.
We went to war for more than 10 years over that; we need to devote the same energy and resources to fighting cancer, she asserted.
For those not swayed by the need to save lives, Rep. DeLauro made an economic appeal. Every single dollar appropriated for National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding results in $2 of business activity and economic impact, she explained.
Rep. DeLauro is an ovarian cancer survivor; she credits "the grace of God and biomedical research" for keeping her alive.
Speaker Roslyn Milstein Meyer, Ph.D., said an experimental treatment she received as part of an NIH-funded clinical trial saved her life. "Without it, I would not be here to tell you this story," said the clinical psychologist and survivor of stage IV metastatic melanoma.
Dr. Meyer described how a melanoma expert suggested she try a form of adoptive immunotherapy that uses tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes (TIL) to harness the body's immune system to recognize and kill cancer cells. In October 2005, she enrolled in a clinical trial. Doctors planned to remove her cancerous lymph node and isolate the lymphocytes that were attacking the cancer, clone them, and put them back in her body in an effort to infuse T cells that were primed to fight the cancer.
A first attempt in 2005 didn't work because the doctors were not able to grow the cells for the TIL treatment. In a second attempt, in 2008, Dr. Meyer was the first person at the National Cancer Institute to get a particular kind of TIL treatment.
Some 85 billion cells were infused back into her body, along with interleukin-2. While she, her children, and husband did a little war dance around the intravenous pole, she said to herself: "Go cells, go."
By March 2009, all but one tumor had disappeared. The last tumor was removed with surgery. The pathology reports showed that the cancer cells had been completely obliterated. No live tumor cells remained. "We were ecstatic," she recalled. Dr. Meyer said she still has no signs of cancer.
With each passing year, we understand more and more about the biology of cancer and the pathways involved in its growth, she said. "We can defeat this illness, but only if our nation continues to fund this critical research."
Keith Flaherty, M.D., director of developmental therapeutics at the Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center in Boston, offered a talking point to convince others that now is not the time to back down on a commitment to cancer research. "In cancer we are having our AZT moment," he said, referring to zidovudine (azidothymidine), which knocked the HIV virus down and helped shift HIV from a lethal to a chronic disease.
He described the cancerous cell, which has tools and tricks to allow it to evade the immune system, proliferate in an uncontrolled way, and occupy tissues it is not supposed to occupy, as "the haystack." Finding needles in this haystack is what made the war on cancer possible, he said. In 2002, researchers found a "needle," a mutation in the serine/threonine-protein kinase — also known as the proto-oncogene B-Raf (BRAF) gene — that shows up in half of all melanoma patients.
A drug developed to target the gene can shrink the tumor up to 100 percent in just two weeks, Dr. Flaherty said. Just as with AZT, a few months later the effect wears off. The cancer figures out a way around the drug. "That's exactly what happened with AZT; the virus was knocked down, not wiped out," Dr. Flaherty said. Researchers are trying to build combination therapies to match cancer in all its complexity, he added.
According to the AACR, the NIH has lost about 13 percent of its purchasing power over the past eight years because of inflation and the rising cost of research and technology.
Rep. Bilbray worries about misplaced priorities. "Sadly, we see everybody from Bush to Newt — I will be bipartisan by trashing my own political affiliation — talking about putting people on Mars and colonies on the moon," he said, "when, in fact, you and I know that if we made half as much commitment to conquering cancer as we know it, within the decade it would have a lot more effect, not only on our lives, but more importantly on our children's and grandchildren's lives."
Lawmakers will have to be brave enough, he said, to cross the aisle and call for repatriating capital from overseas for health care research. And capitalists need to be brave enough to tell the Republicans that if they fail to invest in the research, the next generation may suffer from the standpoint of economic development and prosperity, he warned. "Third-party credibility is critical in this town," he said. "You've got to have somebody coming from the other direction."
Reprinted with permission from Medscape.com, 2011. Available at: http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/758038.