Are We Retreating In The War On Cancer?

couric cancer war on hospital
CBS
Nearly half of all men and more than one-third of all women in the United States will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime. And yet, since 2004, federal funding for research into the four most common kinds of cancer - lung, colon, breast and prostate - has been cut by $102 million. Is enough is being done to stop this killer? This is the first in a series, "The War on Cancer: Where We Stand."
They are America's foot-soldiers in the war on cancer - young scientists whose research may someday lead to better treatments and even cures.

But experts worry this small elite army is leaving the field in droves because government funding, which once allowed cancer research to flourish, is now drying up, CBS News anchor Katie Couric reports.

How bad is it?

"I think we're at very high risk for losing some of our best and brightest people," said Dr. David Nanus, co-chief oncologist at New York's Presbyterian Hospital at Weill Cornell Medical Center. "It's very disheartening, between all the economic problems in the United States, the continuation of the Iraq war, the low-levels of funding. Short-term, it's not good."

The statistics are staggering. Between 1998 and 2003, Congress doubled the National Institute of Health budget, allowing research to thrive. But since 2004, funding has flatlined.

Today, only one-in-10 promising cancer research proposals gets funded. And on average, researchers are 43 years old when they get their first grant.

It frustrates doctors.

"Some of your best ideas need to be funded at an earlier point in your life - when you have the energy and the drive to continue," said Dr. Joseph Mancius.

"Is this going to be very damaging to our efforts to lead the pack in terms of novel cancer treatments?" Couric asked.

"America has been the unquestioned leader in biomedical research for a long time, but that primacy is at risk now," said Dr. Hearn Cho of the New York University Cancer Institute.

Cho, who specializes in blood plasma cancer, graduated from medical school 12 years ago. Since then, he has struggled to fund his research.

And he makes half of what his colleagues earn in private practice.

"I reached a point where I was concerned about the future and I had to consider practical matters of staying employed," he said. "I had to consider the possibility that I might have to take a job in industry."

By "industry," he means pharmaceutical companies. And while they are doing research, it's focused on moving drugs into clinical trials instead of basic research, where the creation of new drugs and approaches takes place.

Some researchers are getting out of the field altogether to pursue more lucrative careers - sometimes on Wall Street.

Still others are heading overseas, where governments and companies in Asia and Europe are creating a brain drain in this country - attracting young Americans like Duncan Odom, who left MIT to go to Great Britain's Cambridge University.

"The feeling within Europe itself is that there's a very positive, forward-thinking, optimistic feel about the future of not just cancer research, but science research in general," Odom said.

At 38, Odom runs his own lab, has a staff of three and has secured financial backing to the tune of more than $1.2 million a year.

"The difference is that cancer research U.K. has core-funded me indefinitely. Which means there are expenditures that I don't have to think about," he said.

That's something his fellow researchers back in the United States struggle with.

Why do American researchers do it?

"'Cause this is what we love," Cho said. "We've dedicated our lives to advancing the understanding of cancer as a disease and developing new ways of treating it. This is our passion."

"I'm excited by the prospect of finding something that will actually make a difference," said Gabrielle Rizzuto of the Tri-Institutional M.D.-Ph.D. program.

And that could be a difference for the more than 10 million Americans currently living with cancer. And when it comes to research dollars, they have the most to lose.