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A Year of Major Advances in Cancer Cited

But government funding cuts threaten continued research progress, oncologists report

FRIDAY, Dec. 8, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- There were important advances in the detection and treatment of cancer this year -- more people than ever are now surviving the disease -- but cuts in government cancer research dollars could slow progress in the fight.

Those are the conclusions of new research released Friday by the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO).

The report, Clinical Cancer Advances 2006: Major Research Advances in Treatment, Prevention, and Screening, identified six important advances in cancer research for the year, including five new drugs that prolong life.

But, despite such progress, ASCO executives are upset at recent cuts in federal funding for cancer research. To keep pace with inflation, the group is calling for a minimum annual funding increase of at least 5 percent both from and for the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH).

"In the last four decades, the investment in clinical cancer research has yielded major progress in prevention, detection and treatment of a wide variety of cancers," Dr. Robert F. Ozols, chairman of ASCO's Cancer Communications Committee, said during a teleconference.

Ozols, a researcher at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia, noted that there are now 10 million cancer survivors in the United States, up from 3.5 million in 1970.

"For the first time in 70 years, the number of deaths in the United States due to cancer declined in 2003," he said. "In addition, we are treating cancer better and with less toxicity."

The ASCO report includes only the most important developments in the way cancer is understood or impacts patient care and survival, Ozols said. The most important advances in cancer treatment in the past year, according to the report, are:

  • The HPV vaccine, Gardasil. As a preventive against human papillomavirus (HPV) infection, the cause of most cervical cancer, the vaccine has the potential to reduce the burden of cervical cancer, which is diagnosed in almost 500,000 women around the world each year. In addition, a 2006 study found the vaccine was also effective in preventing HPV-related vaginal and vulvar precancers.
  • Targeted therapies that improve survival and response rates for hard-to-treat cancers. These include:

    For kidney cancer, the investigational drug temsirolimus (CCI-779), which improved survival when used as a first-line treatment for people with advanced, high-risk kidney cancer, and sunitinib (Sutent), which improved progression-free survival and response rates.

    For advanced breast cancer treatment, there is now Lapatinib (Tykerb). For leukemia patients, Dasatinib (Sprycel), which is effective in those who are resistant to imatinib. And last year, cetuximab (Erbitux) arrived, the first new treatment for head-and-neck cancer in 45 years.

  • Significant advances in genetic tests that predict the outcomes of people with lung cancer.

"These advancers did not happen by accident," ASCO president Dr. Gabriel N. Hortobagyi, from the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, said at the teleconference. "These are the results of the last 30 years of work by investigators and by a major investment this country has made in cancer research."

But cancer research funding itself may well be in crisis, he added. Funding for the NIH had doubled each year up to 2003, but has not been increased since then, he said.

"If you add inflation to that, it is a net cut in funding," Hortobagyi said." We expect next year there will also be a net cut in funding, and that is unfortunate because we are even better prepared today to harvest practical results from the investment in cancer research."

In 2004, the National Cancer Institute, which is part of NIH and funds cancer research, received $4.7 billion, according to NCI. That represents only a 3.2 percent increase over the previous year.

Hortobagyi thinks that rising government deficits and spending in other areas are draining essential dollars from cancer research.

"The decreases in funding are destructive not only because they prevent further progress, but because they result in the dismantling of existing infrastructures for research," he said.

Hortobagyi believes that the National Institutes of Health needs to continue to increase funding just to keep the progress in cancer research at current levels.

"We need a minimum, but consistent, increase of 5 percent per year dedicated to biomedical cancer research," Hortobagyi said. "That will be barely above inflation. It may not ensure growth, but it will ensure maintenance of our current infrastructure and efforts."

More information

The U.S. National Cancer Institute can tell you more about cancer research.

SOURCES: Dec. 8, 2006, American Society of Clinical Oncology teleconference with Gabriel N. Hortobagyi, M.D., ASCO president, University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, Houston, and Robert F. Ozols, M.D., Ph.D., chairman, ASCO Cancer Communications Committee, and researcher, Fox Chase Cancer, Philadelphia; Dec. 8, 2006, ASCO report, Clinical Cancer Advances 2006: Major Research Advances in Treatment, Prevention, and Screening
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