Sequestration Will Hurt Research, Drug Development

Female researcher holding bottle with red liquid

Cancer research and the development of new drug therapies to fight the disease will be slowed significantly if the across-the-board federal spending cuts are implemented March 1 as expected, according to a variety of health-care professionals.

Although Medicare and Medicaid, the country’s two major health entitlements, will be protected from the automatic cuts, programs involving medical and scientific research, mental health and substance abuse and new drug approvals will be impacted.

The spending reductions are part of the sequestration agreement that both the Congress and the President settled upon as a temporary patch after they failed in 2012 to reach a budget agreement to start reducing the $14 trillion federal deficit.

“It’s a very scary prospect,” said Jeff Allen, executive director of Friends of Cancer Research. “It’s concerning. I think where it will take a huge toll is that initially any new projects will be put back maybe years.”

The cuts in cancer research are particularly alarming for researchers and scientists involved with mesothelioma, a rare and deadly cancer caused by an exposure to asbestos. Although progress is being made in finding better therapies to combat the disease, funding new projects and new clinical trials has been difficult.

Sequestration will just make it tougher.

Recent Cancer Findings Show Promise

Recent scientific findings have created new hope for mesothelioma patients and families, but it takes several years and considerable expense to bring new drugs to market. Pharmaceutical companies often are reluctant to commit financially to projects involving rare diseases because the potential gain is minimal. Fund raising in the private sector isn’t easy, either, for a cancer that affects such a small percentage of the population.

It makes federal funding critical.

“It’ll be beyond ridiculous,” Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), told The Washington Post. “We will lose the opportunity to support some fantastic science. For anyone who’s working in biomedical research, there’s never been a time like this. It simply will slow down if we don’t have the resources.”

The United States spends an estimated $200 billion annually on treating patients with cancer, but only $5 billion in cancer research. Federal funding for mesothelioma research is much less. In the past year, the FDA approved nine new cancer drugs. Many were more effective and less toxic than older treatments. Researchers worry that the budget cuts will kill the momentum that has been building in recent cancer research.

Health Programs Face 5 Percent Cuts

Many health-related programs are facing a reduction in budget of 5 percent, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

The Obama Administration, which has struggled to deliver a workable budget plan, estimated an 8.2 percent cut in funding for NIH, the largest supporter of cancer research and clinical trials.

According to the White House, NIH will be forced to “delay or halt vital scientific projects and make hundreds of fewer research awards.” The cuts also will “delay progress on the prevention of debilitating chronic conditions that are costly to society and delay development of more effective treatments for common and rare diseases affecting millions of Americans.”

“We’ll lose research across a broad range, from cancer, diabetes, heart disease, HIV/AIDS, rare diseases, common diseases, basic science,” Collins continued.

Sequester Cuts Almost Across the Board

The sequestration is designed to cut $85.3 billion from the budget in 2013. It is just part of a package that includes $1.2 trillion over the next 10 years from the bloated federal budget. The cuts span both national defense and domestic programs.

The sequester threat has led to a lobbying campaign within the health-care industry and patient advocacy groups. Close to 300 organizations, representing scientists, patients, and providers, sent a letter to Congress expressing their concerns with sequestration and the effect it will have on the NIH. Among the organizations are the American Lung Association, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, the Mayo Clinic and Penn Medicine, groups with mesothelioma programs.

“At a time when we should be investing more in medical research, we have continued to shrink our investment to the point where we are sacrificing real opportunities for discovery of new innovations and medical advances,” the letter included. “There is no doubt, the impact of the proposed cut on NIH-funded research will be immediate and devastating.”

The American Medical Association also has urged Congress to “take a more targeted, rational approach that allows careful assessment of how to fulfill its long-term commitment to . . . public health and safety priorities.”

And while there is plenty of criticism of the sequestration idea, at least it begins to addresses the out-of-control federal spending that has crippled the economy and threatens the American way of life.

“We can’t continue on without doing something about . . . federal health spending in general,” said Joseph Antos, health care expert at the American Enterprise Institute. “A sequester is not a policy. It’s a haircut. And there are a lot smarter ways” to reduce spending.


Tim Povtak is an award-winning writer with more than 30 years of reporting national and international news. His most recent experience is in researching and writing about asbestos litigation issues and asbestos-related conditions like mesothelioma. If you have a story idea for Tim, please email him at tpovtak@asbestos.com

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