I have been fortunate over the past few months to be a member of the committee that developed the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) Cancer Progress Report 2013 – a report that was made public today (http://cancerprogressreport.org/Pages/default.aspx). This report outlines significant progress over the past year, while acknowledging that there is much work yet to be done. It includes sections on “What is Cancer?” “Prevention and Detection,” “Making Research Count for Patients,” “On the Horizon” and “What isRequired for Continued Progress Against Cancer?”
Iowa can be proud that researchers at Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center are making major contributions to many of the advances outlined in the AACR report.
Here are a few examples of contributions made by Holden cancer researchers with a focus on the research areas highlighted in the report (and provided with the knowledge that there are many other very important contributions from the more than 190 cancer research members of Holden).
- Origins of Cancer – The AACR report describes our rapid progress in understanding the very complex origins of cancer. Many Holden researchers, including Drs. Adam Dupuy, Siegfried Janz, Charlie Brenner and Rick Domann, are major contributors to this effort. They are exploring how changes in specific genes can lead to growth and spread of cancer.
- Molecularly Targeted Therapies – A major effort nationally, and one that involves many Holden investigators, focuses on using the discoveries of the origins of cancer to identify new molecular targets and new therapies for cancer. Holden researchers working to identify new targets include Drs. Michael Henry, Frank Zhan, Ron Weigel and Dawn Quelle. Additional researchers such as Drs. Raymond Hohl, Ali Naderi and Sue O’Dorisio work to design new anti-cancer drugs or combinations of drugs that specifically interfere with these newly identified targets. This effort is facilitated by our new High Throughput Screening Core, led by Drs. Kevin Rice and Meng Wu, which uses sophisticated robotics to help researchers screen thousands of different chemicals at one time to see which might be the basis for a new drug against a recently discovered target.
- The Immune System and Cancer – The AACR report identifies how, after many years of research, cancer immunotherapy is now coming of age and provides a new and exciting approach to treating cancer. A large number of researchers at Holden, including Drs. Gail Bishop, David Lubaroff, Zuhair Ballas and myself, are exploring how the immune system and cancer interact and how the immune system can be stimulated to fight the cancer. Approaches being explored include development of novel cancer vaccines and use of novel monoclonal antibodies.
- Nanotechnology – The AACR report highlights how tiny technologies are having a big impact. Nanotechnology involves manufacturing objects that are in the range of 1,000 times smaller than a human hair. Dr. Aliasger Salem leads an interdisciplinary team at Holden exploring use of these tiny structures to enhance our ability to manipulate the immune system to treat cancer.
- Obesity, Metabolism and Cancer – The AACR report highlights how cancer is more common, and harder to treat, in obese patients. Dr. Lyse Norian is exploring how obesity impacts on the immune response to cancer and has made discoveries that may explain why obese patients don’t respond as well to cancer immunotherapy. She is working with a large number of colleagues to identify ways to overcome these problems. Other investigators, including Drs. Douglas Spitz, Joseph Cullen, Garry Buettner and John Buatti, are using progress in our understanding of cancer cell metabolism to enhance the sensitivity of cancer to anti-cancer treatments. An example of their innovative work involves exploration of whether a ketogenic diet similar to the Atkins diet can enhance the efficacy of chemotherapy or radiation therapy.
- Clinical Research – Clinical cancer research is necessary if we are to make research advances count for patients. Our clinical cancer research efforts include many clinical faculty such as Drs. Brian Link, Daniel Vaena, Mohammed Milhem, Daniel Berg, Alex Thomas, Tom Carter, Guido Tricot, Taher AbuHejleh, Ayman El-Sheikh and David Bender, as well as over 30 highly trained clinical research staff members such as research nurses and study coordinators. Clinical research at Holden has included participation in many of the clinical trials that served as the basis for approval by the FDA of 11 new cancer drugs over the past year as highlighted in the AACR report.
- Early Detection – Investigators from Iowa, including Drs. Laurie Fajardo and Karl Thomas, have made major contributions to enhancements in cancer screening for a number of cancers including breast cancer and lung cancer.
- Reducing Risk – Holden investigators, including Drs. Chuck Lynch, Betsy Chrischilles and Barcey Levy have been leaders in monitoring the cancer burden across Iowa and using this information to assess how we can do a better job of reducing the risk of cancer, thereby enhancing our ability to prevent cancer. An example of where Iowa has been a clear leader is the work of Dr. William Field identifying radon as a major risk for lung cancer.
I could go on and on …
Unfortunately, at this time of immense progress and promise, financial support for cancer research from the government is shrinking. On a daily basis, I hear from Holden researchers, including many of the outstanding individuals named above, that they lack the resources to pursue their most exciting ideas. Support from the public in the form of private donations is vital if we are to keep moving forward, but it is not enough to make up for the reduction in support from the government. Many of us in the field classify this lack of resources at such a time of promise as a tragedy because it is slowing progress against cancer and will have a negative impact on so many, many lives. Indeed, the Cancer Progress Report includes the following “AACR Call to Action”:
To fulfill the extraordinary scientific and medical promise of cancer research and biomedical science, the AACR respectfully urges Congress to:
- Designate NIH and NCI as national priorities by providing annual budget increases at least comparable to the biomedical inflation rate.
- Protect the NIH and NCI from another year of the insidious cuts from the across-the board cuts known as the Sequester, and reinstate the $1.6 billion in funding that NIH lost in March 2013.
Therefore, the AACR calls on all Members of Congress to ensure that funding for cancer research and biomedical science is strongly supported. The AACR also urges all Americans — the beneficiaries of this life-saving research — to make their voices heard by encouraging their legislators to provide sustainable increases for the NIH.
If we are to ultimately transform scientific discoveries into therapies that improve and save the lives of cancer patients, it is going to require an unwavering commitment of Congress and the administration to invest in our country’s remarkably productive cancer research and biomedical research enterprise led by the NIH and NCI.
I am currently in Washington DC with other members of the committee to formally release the AACR report at the National Press Club, and to discuss the report with members of congress. Such efforts will only be successful if they are matched by an outcry from citizens of all political persuasions to support cancer research.
That said …
As outlined in the AACR report, we are making progress in cancer research faster than ever before, and using the resulting advances to reduce the burden of cancer. It is a time of great promise in cancer research here in Iowa, nationally and around the world. Given the commitment and focus of my colleagues at Holden and around the country, I have no doubt we will continue to accelerate progress against cancer, which will benefit not only ourselves, but our children and grandchildren for years to come.