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Sequester continuing to hit cancer research hard

Federal budget cuts continue to take a toll on cancer research and, unless a budget agreement is reached within a few weeks, will continue to have far-reaching impact into next year, according to the leaders of several cancer centers.

Since they went into effect March 1, the cuts mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011 – better known as sequestration – mean that fewer clinical studies have started and fewer patients have been enrolled in existing trials.

Walter J. Curran


The cuts also have led to the submission of less-innovative grant applications in hopes that they will be more easily approved by the budget-hamstrung National Cancer Institute, the directors of three NCI-designated cancer centers said at a press briefing Dec. 3.

Sequestration required the National Institutes of Health to cut 5%, or $1.55 billion of its fiscal year 2013 budget, applied evenly across all programs, projects, and activities. NCI officials estimated in June that they would be able to fund 326 fewer grants in 2013, for a savings of about $200 million.

The final impact on NCI-designated centers during fiscal 2013 – which ended on Sept. 30 – is still being calculated, in part because the government shutdown in October delayed that work, said David Pugach, director of federal relations for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network (ACS CAN).

Individual cancer centers, however, have already tallied the effects.

Dr. Walter J. Curran, executive director of the Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University, Atlanta, said that the center will have $5 million less from March 2013 to March 2014. With potentially another 5% cut in the NIH budget due next year, Winship is looking at another $4 million reduction for 2014, he said.

Winship has been growing steadily since its NCI designation in 2008, said Dr. Curran. Because of sequestration, the growth trajectory has slowed dramatically. "We’re working very hard just to keep a stable cadre of faculty and staff," he said.

Sequestration is having a "chilling effect" on investigators, who are pursuing less risky research "in favor of safer bets" and are either giving up on their field or moving overseas, where government-backed research is more plentiful, according to Dr. Chi Van Dang, director of the Abramson Cancer Center at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. He said that the 12,000 patients Abramson sees daily are "looking for hope every day and I think this cutback is taking away their hope," said Dr. Van Dang.

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