TAMPA, FLORIDA — Several of the nation's top leaders and advocates for cancer research converged in Tampa, Florida, on Monday for a forum hosted by the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) and Moffitt Cancer Center with support from the Association of American Cancer Institutes. The 90-minute "Cancer Research Policy Forum: Progress, Promise, and Challenges in the Era of Precision Medicine" highlighted how federally funded research through the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Cancer Institute (NCI) is contributing to the cancer research advances happening at Moffitt and other institutions across the country.
Douglas R. Lowy, MD, acting director of the NCI, was joined by members of the U.S. House of Representatives, Gus Bilirakis and Kathy Castor, on an expert panel of speakers including Thomas A. Sellers, PhD, MPH, Moffitt Cancer Center director; William Dalton, MD, PhD, CEO, M2Gen and chair, AACR Science Policy and Government Affairs Committee; and patient advocate Jacqueline Smith, who discussed the progress being made in cancer research and treatment and the importance of advocating at the federal and local levels. Panelists were united in their calls for robust, sustained, and predictable increases in funding for the NIH.
"This particular event at Moffitt Cancer Center underscores the importance of organizing such events all across the country to advocate for robust, sustained, and predictable annual budget increases for the NIH and NCI, especially when considering that more than 80 percent of all funding allocated to the NIH and NCI each year is competitively awarded to thousands of laboratory researchers and physician scientists in all 50 states," said Jon Retzlaff, MBA, MPA, managing director of the AACR Office of Science Policy and Government Affairs. "It was also a wonderful opportunity for the local members of Congress to interact with their constituents at Moffitt Cancer Center and hear firsthand about the exceptional opportunities that exist today to translate our scientific knowledge and understanding into new ways to improve the prognosis and extend the lives of cancer patients."
Reps. Bilirakis and Castor, both of whom serve on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, have been outspoken advocates in Congress for medical research funding. Both members worked to include a supplemental, mandatory funding stream for the NIH in the 21st Century Cures legislation that passed the House last summer, and which is currently being debated in the U.S. Senate. They also supported a $2 billion increase for the NIH in last year's appropriations bill. In their remarks, both Bilirakis and Castor emphasized the need for Congress to continue to make medical research funding a national priority.
Lowy highlighted the progress that has been made both in terms of a decrease in cancer mortality rates and an increase in our ability to prevent cancer through screening and prevention. He provided an update on new programs, including Vice President Joe Biden's national cancer initiative and the Precision Medicine Initiative that, with continued federal investment, have significant potential to increase the pace of progress against cancer.
"There has always been a tremendous need for funding for cancer research, but now there are tremendous opportunities to make progress that could benefit patients more quickly," said Lowy while speaking at the forum.
"It's an incredibly promising time for cancer research. There have been numerous advances in precision medicine, including immunotherapies for melanoma and lung cancers. We are also seeing signs of hope from our leaders in Washington, D.C., first with the Precision Medicine Initiative and now the 'moonshot' initiative to be led by Vice President Joe Biden," said Sellers.
Support for early career scientists, the importance of collecting and sharing molecular and clinical data and the need for increased investment in cancer prevention were additional topics of discussion that arose during the open forum with the audience, who filled Moffitt's Couch Auditorium to capacity.
Dalton added that the complexity of cancer requires a multidisciplinary, "all hands on deck" approach. Dalton, who is the chair of the AACR Science Policy and Government Affairs Committee, also highlighted the work that the AACR has done to advocate for medical research funding, saying that, "without funding for the NIH and NCI, there will be no 'next generation' of researchers."
Jacqueline Smith, a 15-year survivor of stage 3 melanoma, shared her experience as a patient who had the opportunity to participate in a clinical trial at Moffitt. As someone who has turned her personal journey with cancer into a lifelong mission to advocate for patients and survivors, she encouraged audience members to speak up and urge elected officials to continue investing in medical research through the NIH.