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Playing It Safe in Cancer Research – Forty Year’s War

June 27, 2009
New York Times
From the New York Times:  http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/28/health/research/28cancer.html
By GINA KOLATA
Published: June 27, 2009

Among the recent research grants awarded by the National Cancer Institute is one for a study asking whether people who are especially responsive to good-tasting food have the most difficulty staying on a diet. Another study will assess a Web-based program that encourages families to choose more healthful foods.

The cancer institute has spent $105 billion since President Richard M. Nixon declared war on the disease in 1971. The American Cancer Society, the largest private financer of cancer research, has spent about $3.4 billion on research grants since 1946.    

Yet the fight against cancer is going slower than most had hoped, with only small changes in the death rate in the almost 40 years since it began.

One major impediment, scientists agree, is the grant system itself. It has become a sort of jobs program, a way to keep research laboratories going year after year with the understanding that the focus will be on small projects unlikely to take significant steps toward curing cancer.

It has become lore among cancer researchers that some game-changing discoveries involved projects deemed too likely to fail and were therefore denied federal grants, forcing researchers to struggle mightily to continue.

Take one transformative drug, for breast cancer. It was based on a discovery by Dr. Dennis Slamon of the University of California, Los Angeles, that very aggressive breast cancers often have multiple copies of a particular protein, HER-2. That led to the development of herceptin, which blocks HER-2.

Now women with excess HER-2 proteins, who once had the worst breast cancer prognoses, have prognoses that are among the best. But when Dr. Slamon wanted to start this research, his grant was turned down. He succeeded only after the grateful wife of a patient helped him get money from Revlon, the cosmetics company.

Read entire story on the New York Times website:  http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/28/health/research/28cancer.html

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