Researchers Optimistic About Cancer Funding.

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Cancer researchers in Columbus are monitoring stimulus spending in Washington. They hope the federal government will help make up for recession-driven losses in private donations. WOSU’s Sam Hendren reports that despite the dire economic news, cancer researchers are optimistic – at least in the short term.

Ohio State University’s cancer center gets about $80 million a year from the government-funded National Institutes of Health and the National Cancer Institute. Even though the economy has taken a sharp dive, Ohio State’s Michael Caligiuri says:

“Cancer itself doesn’t take a holiday.”

Caligiuri is director of Ohio State’s Comprehensive Cancer Center and CEO of the James Cancer Hospital. Even in the current financial crisis, he says now is not the time to scrimp on cancer research.

“The prevalence and incidence of cancer continues to rise especially among the elderly despite the economic woes,” Caligiuri says. “In fact there’s some evidence to suggest that it might be worse because people are undergoing more and more stress.”

Caligiuri says researchers have been under a significant amount of stress themselves. It started during the Bush Administration about six years ago when funding for the National Institutes of Health – the NIH – began to lose ground because of inflation.

“The fact that the NIH, under the previous administration, the NIH funding remained flat for several years has really been devastating,” Caligiuri says. “Existing scientists have less dollars to do what needs to be done. In fact if you account for inflation the investment in cancer research has not only been flat it’s actually decreased by 21 percent.”

Ohio State Epidemiologist Electra Paskett knows first hand about inadequate research dollars.

“Do I need more money? I always need more money,” Paskett says.

Paskett is conducting a million-dollar research project studying the incidence and causes of cervical cancer in the Appalachian region of Ohio. About 80 percent of her funding comes from the National Cancer Institute, the remainder from the cancer center’s development efforts. She says her research money is about to run out. And renewal, she says, will be difficult.

“It will be tough because money is tighter and the competition is going to be a lot harder because many people are in the same situation as we are trying to get grants to keep our people employed.

Researchers expect some federal stimulus funding to go to cancer research. $10 billion of stimulus money has been allocated to the National Institutes of Health.

Some of that money could end up at OSU’s cancer center. But Michael Caligiuri wonders if federal stimulus money won’t cause problems for researchers later on.

“The concern is, what happens after the stimulus. You know, once we go ahead and create new jobs and bring new discoveries into the laboratory and the stimulus stops, will the government in its wisdom under our president continue to sustain science so that we can get ahead of cancer and prevent it in everyone?”

Even though government funding makes up the great majority of research budgets, cancer centers also rely on private sources. And the downturn is shrinking those dollars.

Ohio State’s medical center endowment has lost roughly 25 percent of its value during the stock market tumble. What once was a $100 million sum is now around $75 million.

The largest private funder of cancer research in the U.S. is the American Cancer Society. It operates solely on private donations. Each year it distributes $125 million in grants to scientists around the country. Spokesman Bob Paschen says he expects contributions will be adversely affected.

“I think just like everyone else – individuals, businesses, families, non profits, we expect to be affected by the recession.”

That’s bad news for a researcher who loses federal funding, says OSU’s Michael Caligiuri. That’s because research facilities often turn to money from endowments or from private contributors when federal dollars run out.

“When a researcher loses funding we depend entirely on philanthropic support – donations from our community – to sustain that research. In many instances, we simply can’t do that. And in those instances, those researchers, if that dry spell goes on long enough literally have to shut down their labs and move on in their careers.”

Caligiuri says one in four researchers at OSU now find themselves without grants or in between grants. He calls it “incredibly disheartening,” especially when a cancer breakthrough might be just around the corner.