Doubling down for cancer cures

Fred Hutch president urges twofold boost in US cancer-research funding
Dr. Gary Gilliland and Joe Biden
Fred Hutch President and Director Dr. Gary Gilliland listens to Vice President Joe Biden during Biden's visit to campus in March. Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service


We’re in the political season. Partisanship and promises. In my world, cancer does not have a season. Cancer is every day. Cancer is non-partisan. Thankfully, however, the promise of a cure has never been closer to our grasp.

Science has whisked us to the dawn of medical advances that will solve many or all of the 200 distinct diseases that compose “cancer.” We truly can see that bold horizon. We know the pathway. We’re not looking simply to treat cancer — we’re looking to cure cancer. And I believe we can reach that ultimate breakthrough for many cancers within the next 10 years.

Our optimism is fueled, in part, by curative strategies we’re already using at Fred Hutch – especially harnessing the immune system to fight cancer. Immunotherapy holds the brightest potential in modern cancer research. Its roots lie in Fred Hutch’s pioneering work in bone marrow transplantation. Its proof is evident in the revived lives of patients enrolled right now in our clinical trials – 93 percent of patients with an advanced leukemia who received an experimental, “living” immunotherapy as part of a Fred Hutch study experienced sustained remissions. Vice President Joe Biden recently toured our immunotherapy labs to view this stunning progress firsthand.

Push the pace of progress

Indeed, immunotherapy can be a central driver of Vice President Biden’s “Cancer Moonshot” initiative. With about 4,500 children and adults diagnosed with cancer each day in the U.S., we must accelerate our pace. If ever there was a moment to double down on our national cancer-research investment, the time is now.

Last year, President Obama requested a $1 billion budget increase for the National Institutes of Health. In response, Congress authorized a $2 billion increase – a welcome boost that will improve the current and future health of all Americans. At Fred Hutch, nearly 90 percent of our competitively awarded, sponsored research projects are funded by NIH and other federal sources.

Under that NIH umbrella, the National Cancer Institute serves as the principal U.S. agency supporting cancer science, including much of investigation and innovation. In 2016, the NCI’s annual budget is $5.1 billion. If we were to double that NCI expenditure, imagine how much larger and quicker our collective steps will be toward closing the gap on curing cancer. Imagine what we can accomplish on this crucial front with an annual investment of $10 billion for 10 years.

This money would allow us to build needed scientific infrastructure, recruit additional researchers to the cause, run more clinical trials and develop better cures for additional patients across the country. That means expanding – and further hastening – the vast gains we’ve freshly notched on immunotherapies.

Huge return on investment

Such bold investments already have spurred massive rewards and saved thousands of lives. At Fred Hutch, $260 million in NIH money drove the Women’s Health Initiative study that found a link between hormone replacement therapy and breast cancer. The human payoff: there are about 20,000 fewer cases of breast cancer occurring each year in the U.S. The math: That $260 million investment yielded a $37.1 billion return in direct medical costs saved.

During the past decade, the U.S. cancer mortality rate has decreased by about 2 percent each year. That means some 20 percent fewer people are dying of cancer annually compared to 10 years ago. Imagine how much more we can shrink that death rate by doubling our federal investment into cancer research.

Victories in cancer science have come through a better understanding of how to prevent the disease, through improvements in early diagnosis and through our gains in therapies and treatments – all hard-won achievements reaped through years of dogged research.

Our hope is high

These dividends, in turn, have buoyed our hope for what’s next. As NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins has said, we now sit at “the century of biology,” and other countries are now “reading our playbook” on how to thwart cancer.

Yes, these have been long-term wins. And that’s an important point when it comes to funding. In the private sector, investors demand quick results, making it hard to cultivate bucks for a one-decade campaign. But in the public sector, we can better envision and attain those more-distant, most-ambitious vistas. Like reaching the moon in 1969. 

Each day, I feel a growing sense of urgency to develop and disseminate more curative therapies. This is because I know we now have the science. We just need the additional resources.

Let’s push cancer to its long-dreamed conclusion. Let’s quicken our pace of exploration and our rate of discovery. Let’s double down on federal funding. The time is now.

Dr. Gary Gilliland is the president and director of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.

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