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Researchers March On in War on Cancer
Washington, D.C. -- Nearly thirty years ago, President Richard M. Nixon launched the "War on Cancer," signing the National Cancer Act on 23 December, 1971. The progress in the years since and the work still needed to win this war were discussed at a forum, "30 Years of Fighting Cancer: Reflections on the Past, Challenges for the Future," co-sponsored by AAAS and Americans for Medical Progress (AMP) on 7 November.
Paul G. Rogers, a former Congressman from Florida, played an integral role in getting the National Cancer Act enacted. Now Chair of the Board of Research!America, Rogers reflected on the passing of the legislation and its relevance in the country's current climate.
"It's hard to believe that 30 years has gone by since we have started this War on Cancer," he said. "This has been an effort by the scientific community to serve our country. This war has been, and continues to be, an effort to protect our nation through research."
In that time span the percentages of incidences of, and deaths due to, stomach, uterus and colon cancers have dropped significantly. The scientific community's approach to the disease has also changed considerably. Brian Drucker, Director of the Leukemia Center at Oregon Health & Science Center, said once specific cancers are understood they can be treated. Drucker's work has been instrumental in the development of Gleevic, which has been heralded as a new paradigm in cancer therapy. He said genomic research leading to a molecularly targeted approach gives researchers the tools to treat cancer as a technical problem.
"Cancer is like a broken thermostat that can no longer regulate the appropriate amount of cells in the body. For many years the medical community tried to fix the thermostat by hitting it with a hammer, using therapies such as chemotherapy," Drucker said. "Now with the decoding of the human genome, we have a manual telling us which specific parts to replace."
Even with such advances in treatment, speakers pointed out there is plenty of work to be done requiring an increased investment in research. According to the American Cancer Society, 1 out of 2 men and 1 out of 3 women will develop some form of cancer in their lifetimes. The disease drains $180 billion annually from the U.S. economy in addition to the immeasurable losses suffered by families of cancer victims.
In addition to increasing funds for research, further attention must be made to improving access, delivery, and quality of care currently available. Inequities in access to convenient, quality care are widening based upon socioeconomic status said Otis Brawley, Director of the National Cancer Institute Office of Special Populations. Brawley said, "In effect, poverty is a carcinogen."
Ellen Stovall, President and CEO of the National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship, echoed these sentiments concerning disparities in access, specifically to clinical trials. Stovall, a survivor of 2 bouts with cancer, first began treatment for Hodgkin's disease on the day the Cancer Act was signed in 1971. At that time she was declined access to treatment in clinical trials, used to cure her second bout with the disease years later.
Work is being done to ensure proper funding for research and equal access to quality care. Anna Barker, president and CEO of BIO-NOVA, Inc., served on the National Cancer Legislation Advisory Committee that recently produced the report, Conquering Cancer: A National Battle Plan to Eradicate Cancer in Our Lifetime. This report, addressed to Congress and President George W. Bush, provides a strategic plan for winning the War on Cancer within the 21st century. It focuses on four areas: 1) increasing discovery research and training, 2) transforming scientific discoveries into cancer treatments, 3) improving access to quality cancer care; and 4) delivering such care through a coordinated health care system.
Barker said after thirty years the scientific community has learned a great deal of what does and does not work in treating cancer, but that defeating the disease "requires a full scale national commitment from the present presidential administration, Congress, the scientific community, and the American people."