The War on Cancer: Worth Fighting, Worth Funding


    President Richard M. Nixon signaled the launch of the war on cancer in his January 1971 State of the Union address with the following words:

    “The time has come in America when the same kind of concentrated effort that split the atom and took man to the moon should be turned toward conquering this dread disease. Let us make a total national commitment to achieve this goal.”

    On Dec. 23, 1971, the National Cancer Act, which committed an extra appropriation of $100 million to launch an intensive campaign to find a cure for cancer, was signed into law.

    Thirty-seven years and billions of dollars later, some would have us declare a truce or declare a “withdrawal with honor” from the battle because the war has not yet succeeded in completely eradicating cancer from our midst. And driven by the politics of the times, the National Cancer Institute has instituted a budget freeze since 2003 resulting in a funding reduction when adjusted for inflation.

    However, this is precisely the wrong time to give up, and it is precisely the wrong time to reduce cancer research funding. Instead of looking at the past 37 years and becoming discouraged, we should take a closer look at the last five years and find inspiration.

    The sequencing of the human genome, completed only in 2003, has opened new avenues of exploration and exponential progress undreamed of only a few short years ago, let alone in 1971 when scientists were just beginning to comprehend cancer’s complex genetic and cellular nature.

    I would invite those who advocate withdrawal to visit the labs at Van Andel Research Institute and speak with the bright young men and women who have dedicated their lives to this battle, who are engaged in this daily struggle of basic and translational research, and for whom the battle is often also a personal one.

    VARI researchers have set about making discoveries that allow us to better understand how cancer develops, grows and moves throughout the body. In the past two years alone, among other discoveries, they have identified an important enzyme required for cancer cell survival, slowed kidney tumor growth, discovered a gene that could be crucial in the development of “pre-leukemia,” and identified a new target for blocking cancer cell metastasis.

    They have also worked to transfer these discoveries from the bench to the bedside, bringing advanced treatments to local cancer patients. This year, in conjunction with our clinical partners, we plan to enroll an additional 200 cancer patients in a clinical trial designed to match uniquely tailored drug treatments to the molecular makeup of individual patients.

    We realize now what we did not realize in 1971: There will not be a single cure for cancer. Instead, because of cancer’s complex genetic and molecular makeup and the variability of the response of individuals to treatment, there will be many cures for many types of cancer.

    At VARI, we established a laboratory of systems biology in 2006, a promising new field that merges biology with the disciplines of computer science, mathematics, physics and engineering. This is a field that barely existed five years ago.

    We also have pioneered collaborative international partnerships that allow us to share data and technology at a moment’s notice with VARI International counterparts at the National Cancer Center of Singapore and partners at Nanjing Medical University.

    Encouragingly, a recent study by a VARI epidemiologist demonstrates that, when stratified by age, cancer mortality rates are on the decline for every age group. The study provides a clearer, more accurate and more optimistic picture than previous statistical analyses that rely on less accurate, age-adjusted mortality rates.

    This finding certainly represents progress on many fronts. Through the increased use of cancer screenings, changes in lifestyle, and perhaps most significantly, improved early treatments through chemotherapeutics and targeted therapies, those waging the war on cancer have impacted cancer mortality across the entire lifespan.

    While this is encouraging news to the research and medical community and the population as a whole, it is small comfort for those facing the loss of a loved one from the ravages of cancer or confronting their own frightening diagnosis.

    For this reason, basic and translational research into the genetic and molecular origins of cancer remains as important an endeavor today as it was in 1971.

    Much has changed since those early days. Some developing nations of the 1970s have developed into economic and technological powerhouses with significant resources to contribute to this struggle. Former enemies have also become allies. VARI’s partnership with China, for example, would not have been possible, for political reasons, in 1971.

    A war declared in 1971 has allowed scientists in many nations to look beyond political differences to work together to face a common enemy and to relieve the suffering of untold millions. An initiative of such power should not be allowed to become derailed by the proponents of short-sighted political expediency. This is a war worth fighting and worth funding.

    David Van Andel is chairman and CEO of Van Andel Institute.

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