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No money, no cure

07/06/2009
Erin Podolak

Is government funding a research roadblock or a laboratory life-preserver? A recent article on federal grants for cancer research has sparked debate over the state of science funding in the United States.

Is government funding a research roadblock or a laboratory life-preserver? A recent article on federal grants for cancer research has sparked debate over the state of science funding in the United States.

Though there are private investors and nonprofit organizations that channel money to researchers, the government is still a primary source of funding for cancer research. Since 1971, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) has spent $105 billion in search of a cure, but despite the investment, the death toll from the disease seems to have changed minimally. Now, scientists and the public alike are questioning the approach.

Gina Kolata’s New York Times article "Grant System Leads Cancer Researchers to Play It Safe" asked readers to consider what a cheeseburger and french fries have to do with curing cancer. The answer is the “tasty food” study, led by Bradley Appelhans at the University of Arizona, and which is being funded by the NCI. Appelhans will research the link between obesity and cancer on the basis that people who enjoy tasty food will have difficulty staying on a diet, thereby making them more susceptible to cancer. The study will be supported by $100,000 of government money over two years.

While proving that delicious food makes it hard to stick to a diet may reiterate the obvious, the link to obesity could be important to cancer awareness. “It will provide knowledge that will incrementally contribute to more effective cancer prevention strategies,” Appelhans told the Times. The problem, Kolata writes, is that funding a study like "tasty food" means that a slew of other promising studies were turned down. Though not guaranteed to produce results like the Appelhans study, many of these rejected proposals could have a similar—or greater—impact on cancer research.

A study of the blockage of the HER-2 protein by herceptin as a treatment for aggressive breast cancers is one of Kolata’s examples of a promising but high-risk study that will not be funded by the government. Led by Dennis Slamon of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), the study was turned down by federal grant administrators. Though Slamon's project ultimately found support from the cosmetics company Revlon, scientists and the public are calling on policymakers to answer for the administrative process that seems to reward security over scientific inquiry.

The government agencies that provide funding must choose which studies will be most advantageous, and often choose those that guarantee results. Basic research requests and clinical studies that have a chance of failing are often rejected by agencies feeling the pressure to deliver results. Yet this methodology has not created a cure, even after spending $105 billion over 40 years. Critics of the grant system argue that science isn’t about reshaping known facts, and that agencies should better reward applications that address new areas of research.

Frustrated by the time-consuming process of applying for grants and the subsequent rejection, Rashida Karmali, CEO of Tactical Therapeutics, has stopped looking for government funding. Instead, she has turned to private investors. Her company is developing drugs for cancer research, specifically carboxyamidotriazole orotate (CTO) for the treatment of gliblastomas and other solid tumors. “We have been getting good results, so I have looked for funding from serious private investors who are investing in the technology and the company,” said Karmali, in a recent BioTechniques interview about funding for small businesses.

In her article, Kolata explores the faults of the grant system, which ignited discussion about funding practices. In letters to the editor, readers expressed their own frustration with the funding process. “Grantors should acknowledge the capacity of a seasoned scientist to leap to new insights. Public health problems with the magnitude of cancer require some risks with research funding,” said Phillip Canto, NIH consultant, to the New York Times.

Responses to the article defended the grants system as well. “Experienced scientific reviewers understand the need to balance widely different questions and approaches in order to decide which proposals are likely to be the most effective,” said Daniel Gardner, member of the NIH peer review panel, in another letter to the editor. A stressed system—this year alone the National Institutes of Health (NIH) received approximately 20,000 applications for challenge grants, when funding for only 200 is actually available—coupled with little progress over many years has provided ample ammunition to critics who think funding has not been awarded to the right scientists.

Discussion on the Kolata article and issues with the funding system has appeared on science blogs as well, and incited controversy across the internet. Though many blame the government for the failings of the grant system, it is still uncertain whether the outcry will have any real implications in the form of a system overhaul.