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    Prostate cancer research: Officials say funding must improve

    Roundtable also calls for greater support of young scientists


    Bob Gatty
    Washington—Prostate cancer research deserves the same level of government commitment as other forms of cancer receive, even those that affect young children, according to Jonathan Simons, MD, president and chief executive officer of the Prostate Cancer Foundation, Santa Monica, CA.

    "The urgency around getting the science to the [prostate cancer] patients ought to be now equivalent to that for children with leukemia," Dr. Simons said during a media roundtable at the National Press Club on the state of prostate cancer research. "We look at every child with leukemia with curative intention."

    The discussion included calls for significant funding increases for prostate cancer research, increased support for young scientists and researchers in prostate cancer, and steps to encourage more patients to participate in clinical trials.

    "The funding level has to be increased at all levels," urged Donald Coffey, PhD, professor of urology, oncology, and pharmacology and molecular sciences at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore. "The National Cancer Institute has to put more into this."

    The roundtable was held on April 23, just a few days after NCI Director John E. Niederhuber, MD, announced the Institute's plans to invest $1.3 billion in cancer research over 2 years under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. However, the specific investment for prostate cancer research was not spelled out.

    Clearly, the hope of the roundtable participants is that prostate cancer research will get its fair share of that infusion of stimulus funds.

    Dr. Niederhuber said the funds "give us the chance... to move cancer research from the accumulation of scientifically exciting genomic data to a new way of approaching prevention, diagnosis, and therapy and to ensure access to our latest science for all."


    Fast Facts
    Those funds, he added, combined with NCI's appropriated revenue, will allow the Institute to dramatically increase its threshold for research grant approvals from last year's top 12% of grant applications to the top 25% this year.

    "We will utilize a combination of 2-year and 4-year grants with concurrent increases in the grant pay line for young, first-time investigators," Niederhuber said. "While the numbers are not yet firm, it is clear that there will be a marked increase in the number of principal investigators studying cancer."

    Dr. Coffey pointed out that in 2005, NCI allocated $373 million for prostate cancer, a sum that declined each year thereafter to $348 million, $345 million, $295 million, and, in 2009, $290 million.

    "There is an absolute explosion of new discoveries coming over the horizon," he said. "The young investigators see that they're not being funded, [which] is really causing great numbers of them to have to leave the field."

    He says only 30% of approved prostate cancer research grant applications are funded.

    "This is the biggest danger we face if we're going to lose the capital of our young people," he warned. "Everybody has seen that [funding for] other major cancers has increased over the same period of time. So this is a serious problem for prostate cancer."

    S. Ward "Trip" Casscells, MD, a prostate cancer survivor and assistant secretary for health affairs at the U.S. Department of Defense, pointed out that Congress has appropriated $80 million annually for a special prostate cancer research program initiated by Rep. John Murtha (D-PA) over the past several years. However, that funding level has remained flat since 2001, despite inflation.

    "A lot of soldiers like me—and former soldiers and Marines—have gotten this disease that affects us middle-aged and older males," Dr. Casscells said. "Clinical trials are absolutely critical. There are hundreds of compounds in development that are just for leukemia, just for breast cancer. They might well work in prostate cancer, but they haven't been tested. So we need that impetus."

    According to Peter Nelson, MD, professor of medicine and oncology at The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, Seattle, key impediments to prostate cancer research are the ability to offer clinical trials at institutions across the U.S. where adequate monitoring can be provided, as well as convincing men that such trials should be considered as therapy, not simply as experiments.

    Mark Grayson, deputy vice president of communications and public affairs for the Pharmaceutical Research & Manufacturers of America, noted that American pharmaceutical companies have more than 108 prostate cancer medicines in development, compared to 88 agents 2 years ago. But "you need more people in clinical trials. It slows up."

    The discussion was put in the context of the ongoing debate over health care reform. As Grayson noted, cancer research needs to be included in that discussion.

    Bob Gatty
    Bob Gatty, a former congressional aide, covers news from Washington for Urology Times.

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