As a follow-up to the previous post I am posting a speech delivered by a prominent cancer researcher and advocate comparing resources devoted to the war on cancer versus the war on terrorism. I would add my own comment: shouldn’t we should finish one war before we begin prosecuting another?


Fighting the terrorist within

By Geoffrey M. Wahl, November 17, 2006

Fighting cancer bears a striking resemblance to our fight against terrorism. Cancer strikes just as randomly and unpredictably, and it causes suffering, death and great personal loss to family, friends and loved ones left behind. Tragically, the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks killed more than 2,900 people on that fateful day. On any one day, cancer kills more than 1,500 people in the United States alone – about one death per minute, or more than 564,000 Americans each year. To put this into perspective, that’s about half the entire population of San Diego, and more than the entire populations of Long Beach and Las Vegas. Tragedy is too soft a word to describe this kind of devastation.

To address the war on terrorism, the nation has committed ever-increasing resources to security, surveillance and weaponry for the military. To win the war against the terrorist within known as cancer, wouldn’t it be prudent to invest more of our resources to prevent cancer, and to develop effective detection methods and treatments for the 200 diseases we collectively call cancer?

As Congress prepares the nation’s budget for fiscal year 2007, it is proposing to provide increased resources to fight the war on terrorism. By contrast, our lawmakers plan to cut $40 million from the National Cancer Institute. This is the wrong time to reduce our commitment to the war on cancer. We are at a critical moment in the history of cancer research. This is a time of exciting research opportunities that hold promise for significant advances in the prevention and cure of cancer.

Recent discoveries in science and technology have dramatically increased our understanding of the biological events that lead to cancer. This knowledge is ushering in a new era of “personalized medicine,” allowing us to identify people at risk for cancer long before the disease has a chance to form and to prevent the disease before it starts. We are now developing “smart” drugs that target an individual’s tumor cells. These new drugs limit collateral damage to normal cells, which is the primary source of the often-intolerable side effects of standard chemotherapy.

The just released Annual Report to the Nation on Cancer, 1975-2003, reported that our risk of dying from cancer continued to drop, maintaining a trend that began in the early 1990s. Death rates have decreased for 11 of the 15 most common cancers, while cancer incidence rates remained stable. Overall, five-year cancer survival rates have also shown marked improvement, having increased from 50 percent to 66 percent (and to more than 75 percent for children) since 1971.

From an economic perspective, the federal investment in cancer research over the past 35 years amounted to about $69.3 billion, roughly $8.50 per American each year. This relatively modest sum spawned a vast new biotechnology industry that has contributed enormously to economic growth in this country. Today, there are nearly 4,000 biotechnology companies employing more than 200,000 people – in California alone, where the industry originated, there are more than 800 such companies. The growth in revenues from the biotechnology sector has been impressive, increasing from $8 billion in 1992 to more than $46 billion in 2004.

Reduced federal budgets for cancer research translate into reduced funding for promising new research ideas and a lack of career opportunities for young scientists. Over the past seven years, the success rate on grant proposals to test new ideas has fallen from 32 percent to less than 10 percent. Further significant funding lapses would discourage and force current and future generations of young researchers to look elsewhere for career opportunities. The loss of an entire generation of researchers would be a devastating setback to this rapidly evolving field, and an unacceptable loss for everyone touched by cancer.

With the passage of the National Cancer Act in 1971, President Nixon and the nation made historic commitment to wage a war against cancer. To finish that war, we need to make funding for cancer research a national priority. Jonas Salk once said that a true measure of one’s life is our legacy, and whether we will be judged by the future as “wise ancestors.”

For our generation, we should be asking ourselves how much it’s worth to end the fear from cancer – the terrorist within. Doing so would save millions of lives, reduce suffering, and save the nation billions of dollars in health care costs. Surely, our children and all future generations to come will judge this to be a worthy and wise legacy.

Wahl, a professor at The Salk Institute for Biological Studies, La Jolla, California, is president of the American Association for Cancer