NCI and NIH Budget Increases Recommended at Senate Hearing
U.S. Senator Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) asked National Cancer Institute (NCI) Director Dr. Andrew C. von Eschenbach to provide an estimate of how much additional money NCI would need in order to accelerate reaching its goal of eliminating suffering and death from cancer 5 years earlier than the current target date. Sen. Specter posed the question in his role as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services (HHS), and Education during an April 6 hearing on the National Institutes of Health (NIH) budget for fiscal year 2006. In addition to his role on the subcommittee, Sen. Specter said that his question also came from his perspective as a cancer survivor currently in treatment for Hodgkin's lymphoma.
Sen. Specter was joined by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), ranking minority member on the subcommittee, in recommending substantial increases to the Administration's budget request of $28.8 billion for NIH in FY 2006. That request includes $4.8 billion for NCI, a $16.5 million increase over FY 2005. Recently, the two Senators were instrumental in amending the Senate budget resolution to include a $1.5 billion increase for NIH in FY 2006, compared with the $144 million increase in the Administration's request. "What further progress could be made with the additional $1.5 billion increase provided by the Senate budget resolution?" Sen. Specter asked all of the NIH Institute directors at the hearing. Dr. von Eschenbach responded that the increased funding could significantly accelerate research progress.
The NCI Director also provided Sen. Specter with a summary of the progress being made by NCI-supported scientists in treating various forms of Hodgkin's and non-Hodgkin's lymphomas. He noted the dramatic results recently reported for the targeted drug, iodine-131 tositumomab (Bexxar) for people with late-stage follicular lymphoma (NCI Cancer Bulletin, February 8).
"The drug demonstrated a 75 percent complete response rate" with most patients in remission 5 years after treatment, Dr. von Eschenbach explained. "This is remarkable for what has been an incurable, fatal disease." NCI researchers have made tremendous strides during the past few years in understanding the underlying genetic, molecular, and proteomic variations for the different kinds of lymphomas, he added.
At Sen. Harkin's request, Dr. von Eschenbach provided an update on the Human Cancer Genome Project, a collaboration between NCI and the National Human Genome Research Institute. The project's goal is to determine the gene expression profiles of normal, precancerous, and cancer cells, leading eventually to improved detection, diagnosis, and treatment for the patient, he explained. NCI is developing a pilot project to create the infrastructure and demonstrate the feasibility for a broader application. The Human Cancer Genome Project, in combination with the promise of nanotechnology, will enable clinicians to intervene at the earliest stages of cancer development, he said.
Senators Specter and Harkin also expressed concerns about negative fallout from HHS' proposed new conflict-of-interest rules for NIH scientists. Sen. Harkin cautioned, "I'm concerned that the new regulations go too far, especially when it comes to requiring NIH employees to divest stocks that they've had for many years." NIH Director Dr. Elias Zerhouni agreed with the Senators' concerns and has already persuaded HHS to delay implementation of the stock divestiture rule until July 2005.
Additionally, in oral and written testimony, Dr. Zerhouni and other NIH Institute directors expressed concern over continuing restrictions on embryonic stem cell research. They noted that vital scientific progress against a number of diseases is being delayed and that talented researchers in this field could leave NIH and other federally supported research institutions for less restrictive environments.
By Bill Robinson