Letter to BCRF Supporters
This letter is in response to the June 28, 2009 article in The New York Times, "Playing It Safe in Cancer Research."
July 9, 2009
To our BCRF supporters:
Many of you may have seen or heard about an article that appeared on June 28 in The New York Times, "Playing It Safe in Cancer Research." This controversial article alleges slowness in the war against cancer and attributes much of the blame to an overly conservative federal grant-making approach that generally fails to support "risky" new ideas or radical approaches.
The denial of progress against cancer is contradicted by the facts, especially in breast cancer where declining death rates have been seen in every part of the world that has applied the results of modern research. In the United States the mortality rate from breast cancer has dropped by 25% since 1990. While this is far from total victory, it is a clear sign of progress.
It should also be noted that the article is self-contradictory in that it begins by holding up to ridicule some examples of recent federal grants but ends by discussing them in a positive tone. Moreover, the article ends by citing federal programs that seek to support new ideas within a mandate not to gamble taxpayer money on expensive programs with a very low likelihood of success. The article cites the development of the anti-HER2 drug trastuzumab (Herceptin) as an example of research that was rejected for federal funding when in fact the discovery of the gene, its abundance in some breast cancers, its role in controlling cell growth, and its ability to save lives as part of a post-operative treatment program were all supported by the National Cancer Institute (including research led by or involving, it so happens, several current BCRF grantees).
Whatever the source of financial support, there is always a critical need for seed funding to initiate the research process by the generation of preliminary data. We assert that this underscores the importance of BCRF's approach to funding and explains our commendable track record.
Our approach to identifying talent and exciting new ideas has been compared to the MacArthur Foundation's "genius awards" program. The BCRF model is to identify individuals of demonstrated actual or potential accomplishment and encourage their creativity so as to move the field forward in dramatic ways. This often means the support of research that might be classified as "high risk" in that preliminary data needs to be yet developed. However, these ideas are also "high yield" in that they are novel and hence potentially practice-changing.
This model has served us, and the patients we serve, very well. BCRF grants have supported and are supporting important new strategies for treatment and prevention that are far from the status quo. We have never believed in "playing it safe" because that is not our role. Many of the projects we have initiated have been further advanced using federal funds based on preliminary data that could not have been generated by any other means of support. Our grants have resulted in transformative, lifesaving advances [please see What We've Accomplished, in this section.]
In the coming year, we expect to be able to add to this substantially to this list. As but one example, we are supporting important work on PARP inhibitors, a new targeted therapy you may have seen in the news in recent weeks. PARP inhibitors are now being tested to see if they make chemotherapy work better against aggressive forms of breast cancer (such as the "triple-negative" subtype). PARP inhibitors also may be able to treat some breast cancers alone, without chemotherapy. BCRF is also funding important international collaborations that are improving treatment and reducing mortalities in places as far away as Southeast Asia, Africa, and many Latin American countries. And our projects are shedding new light on why breast cancers sometimes spread, so as to develop new strategies for preventing and treating metastasis.
You will hear much more about this at the 2009 BCRF Symposium to be held at the Waldorf=Astoria on October 28th. We hope that many of you will be with us then. For those of you who cannot make it, you can look forward to a video of the proceedings to follow on the BCRF website, www.bcrfcure.org.
Thank you for your support, encouragement, enthusiasm and dedication. Yes, in spite of documented progress, breast cancer is still a global problem; but you via BCRF are part of the solution. No battle has ever been won with pessimism. Let us keep making progress together.
Larry Norton, MD
Clifford Hudis, MD