Connecticut’s share of funding from the National Cancer Institute has dropped 19 percent since 2010 – a steeper decline than many other states, an analysis of National Institutes of Health data shows.
Federal cancer institute funding to Connecticut fell to $33.4 million in 2014 – down from $41.1 million in 2010. The biggest grantee, Yale University, is receiving $7 million less from the National Cancer Institute, one of the NIH’s most prominent centers.
Overall, NIH research grants to Connecticut fell to $461.3 million – down from $484.4 million in 2010, NIH reports show. Most of that decline was in research awards to Yale, which dropped $25 million.
Yale cancer researchers say the funding cuts come at a time of potential breakthroughs in new screening and treatment options, some based on progress in genetics. Nationally, funding for breast cancer research fell 20 percent between 2010 and 2013; funding for cervical cancer and lung cancer research fell to their lowest levels in four years in 2013.
“It’s particularly tragic that right at the time when we are on the cusp of major advances in genomics, immunotherapies, and personalized medicine, there is a significant decline in NIH funding,” said Dr. Anees Chagpar, director of The Breast Center-Smilow Cancer Hospital at Yale-New Haven. “We continue to strive to do the kind of impactful research that will result in more people living cancer free -- or perhaps never getting cancer in the first place,” she said, “but the lack of funding for such work just means it takes that much longer to reach the holy grail.”
This summer, leaders of the American Society of Clinical Oncology sounded the alarm over the decline in cancer research funding, saying that the number of federally funded studies submitted to the group’s annual meeting had fallen sharply over seven years – from 575 studies in 2008, to just 169 this year. The NCI saw its total funding drop below $5 billion for the first time since 2009 – to $4.8 billion in 2013 and $4.9 billion in 2014.
"While our country has had a long-standing commitment to funding cancer research, this commitment appears to be diminishing," said the society’s outgoing president, Dr. Clifford Hudis, chief of the Breast Cancer Medicine Service at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.
While a number of states have seen declines in cancer research funding, many such as New York, Florida, and California have seen smaller declines than Connecticut. Overall, NCI funding has dropped about 3.5 percent since 2010.
The decline in total NIH funding has impacted not only cancer researchers, but also scientists chasing other illnesses. At Yale, researcher Amy Arnsten, a professor of neurobiology and psychology who is exploring causes of Alzheimer’s disease, said that about 90 percent of her grant requests have been rejected in the past several years.
“I had a program project grant that had funding for many labs to work together to try to figure out what makes the aging brain so vulnerable,” Arnsten said. Because of the funding reductions and pressure on the NIH to maintain a large number of smaller grants for individual labs, “there was very little funding left in the pot for Program Projects,” which are multi-site collaborations.
“It makes it much harder to work together with researchers who have different skills but are interested in the same ideas – which is the approach you need to solve big problems like Alzheimer's,” Arnsten said.
Nationally, the NIH budget peaked in fiscal year 2010 at $31.2 billion, falling to $30 billion in fiscal year 2014. Budget sequestration in 2013 cut the agency’s spending by five percent.
This week, U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro and other Democratic members of the House of Representatives’ Labor, Health and Human Services, Education Appropriations Subcommittee renewed their call for a hearing on budget cuts to the NIH and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in light of the ongoing public health threat posed by the Ebola virus. They said the NIH had lost more than ten percent of its purchasing power since 2010, when accounting for inflation.
Like other universities, Yale has taken on corporate partners in recent years to try to close the funding gap. In 2011, the Yale School of Medicine formed a multi-year research partnership with Gilead Sciences, through which the biopharmaceutical company is providing Yale with $40 million for research on novel cancer therapies.
In 2012, Yale announced a partnership with GlaxoSmithKline to design a new class of molecules that will target disease-causing proteins. And last year, the AbbVie pharmaceutical company and Yale began a $14.5 million collaboration on research into the causes of autoimmune and inflammatory diseases.
Non-academic research also has been impacted by NIH reductions. The state Department of Public Health received more than $2 million a year from the NCI from 2010 through 2012 for a Connecticut Tumor Registry, a population-based resource for examining cancer patterns in Connecticut. The registry's computerized database includes all reported cancers diagnosed in Connecticut residents from 1935 to the present, as well as follow-up, treatment and survival data on reported cases. It is one of only five statewide so-called SEER (surveillance, epidemiology, and end results) sites in the country.
DPH spokesman Bill Gerrish said funding reductions in the last two years have resulted in the elimination of positions and a slower turnaround time for processing data requests from researchers. DPH also has scrapped plans to secure an IT consultant to assist with a plan to collect electronic cancer reports from physician practices.
A few Connecticut research sites have seen modest increases in funding in recent years. NIH grants to the University of Connecticut medical and dental schools have risen from $43 million in 2010, to $48 million in 2014.
In recent years, the number of applications filed for an NIH RO1 Equivalent grant, the oldest and most common type of research award, has climbed, but the success rate has fallen. In 2004, the success rate for the grants was about 25 percent; in 2013, it fell to an all-time low of 17.5 percent.
In Connecticut in 2004, researchers submitted 79 applications for NIH Small Business Innovation Research Grants; 17 of them, or 21.5 percent, were awarded. In 2013, 80 applications were submitted, but just ten, or 12.5 percent, were successful.
Breast cancer researchers credit NIH funding for progress in discovering cancer-susceptibility genes that have allowed for more effective treatments. The death rate from breast cancer declined between 1990 and 2010, from 33.1 per 100,000 women to 22.1.
The current level of funding is “simply inadequate to accelerate progress against cancer in the years ahead,” Dr. Richard L. Schilsky, the chief medical officer of ASCO, wrote in a recent article. Even if funding increases next year, he said, “it will not be easy to recapture the lost momentum in the research community, but it is vital that we try.”
Federal funding for cancer research will be among the topics discussed at a community forum on Tuesday, October 21, in New Haven.
This story was reported under a partnership with the Connecticut Health I-Team (c-hit.org).