National Cancer Institute NCI Cancer Bulletin: A Trusted Source for Cancer Research News
September 22, 2009 • Volume 6 / Number 18

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Director's Update

Using ARRA Funds to Advance Cancer Research

Dr. John E. Niederhuber Dr. John E. Niederhuber

As the fiscal year draws to a close September 30, a number of offices around NCI become especially busy places. Members of our staff who supervise budget issues, grant funding, program management, and contract administration put in long hours, making sure every dollar is appropriately allocated. In 2009, end-of-year responsibilities are even greater, as NCI also works to distribute the $1.26 billion it received under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).

ARRA brought to the institute a large amount of money that must be used by our grantees in just 2 years, making it essential that almost all of the funding decisions for ARRA be completed in the 2009 fiscal year. These funds have made possible infusions of resources benefitting both individual investigators and large, team science projects. ARRA is, in fact, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us to truly enhance the field of cancer research. There is also, I believe, an important message in the way the institute has chosen to use these vital resources. It is a story I was most proud to detail for the National Cancer Advisory Board last week.

Fifty-nine percent of NCI’s ARRA dollars are going to supplement existing grants or to fund new, competing grants. Individual investigators conducting hypothesis-driven science remain the backbone of NCI’s research portfolio, and for that reason, the support of investigators—established or new to the field—was the institute’s first priority. We modeled numerous scenarios to determine how many grants NCI could fund and whether to promise just 2 years of funding under ARRA or to extend the term of many grants to 4 or 5 years, committing appropriated dollars for the years of the grant after the ARRA support in years 1 and 2. By planning now for the “out years” after ARRA funds run out, we will be better able to maintain an acceptable level of support for laboratory and clinical scientists working in research universities across the United States and, hopefully, soften just a bit the landing, post-ARRA.

ARRA funds have also gone to education; to the pressing need of our universities and NCI-designated Cancer Centers, so they can continue to nurture great scientific minds. ARRA funds have gone toward programs to help new faculty members get started in their academic careers, to encourage some who may have gone in other scientific directions to return to biomedical research, to facilitate the hiring of summer students to work in labs around the country, and to develop a diverse cadre of new researchers.

Of the remaining ARRA funds, 39 percent are being dedicated to research and development contracts—opportunities for the academic community to participate in more directed, task-oriented research. To take just one example, NCI recently launched a Chemical Biology Consortium, a network of chemists that can be called on to collaborate in large or small teams, depending on the needs of an individual project, to help develop promising targeted therapies and more rapidly get those drugs into clinical trials. Members of the consortium, which will consist of eight universities and three commercial laboratories that were selected from more than 30 bidders, will be asked to carry out specific tasks with measurable outcomes and clear expectations for the project-specific dollars.

ARRA funds, in some cases supplementing appropriated dollars, have made possible a number of other important, directed initiatives.

ACTNOW, or Accelerating Clinical Trials of Novel Oncologic Pathways, will fund 37 early phase clinical trials of new treatment regimens. These awards will be contingent on obtaining Institutional Review Board approval for the trial and opening the trial to patient enrollment within 90 days of their award, with the target for completing enrollment in 2 years.

The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA), a project jointly led by NCI and the National Human Genome Research Institute, will expand its mission to identify all of the relevant genetic changes in cancer. In just 3 years, the TCGA pilot project has established state-of-the-art genome sequencing and analysis centers, which have facilitated groundbreaking genetic discoveries in glioblastoma multiforme (the most common and deadly form of brain cancer) and will soon publish important findings on ovarian cancer.

The cancer Biomedical Informatics Grid (caBIG) is moving forward with its ambitious plans to create a secure, nationwide infrastructure for the storage of patient data that will give scientists access to vast amounts of genomic information never before made widely accessible. Spurred by use of electronic cancer records, this resource has the potential to revolutionize the way clinician scientists conduct clinical trials.

The cancer Human Biobank (caHUB) is building a tissue acquisition, storage, and characterization center, which will operate as a centralized nonprofit public resource that will ensure the adequate and continuous supply of high quality, ethically obtained human biospecimens and associated data.

In the end, these initiatives and spending plans will truly matter when the new knowledge they generate reaches the patient’s bedside. Likewise, I believe it is our responsibility to convey the scientific excitement and promise that we see reflected in the activities ARRA has made possible. Each of the activities briefly described above is either being scaled up or started because of the availability of stimulus dollars. Without ARRA, many would have been delayed or only marginally supported. By wisely allocating all of the resources we are given, I believe we will hasten our successes. Cancer research is making progress. We know the White House and Congress are watching, as are those living with cancer and the people who love them. We realize all too well the need and the expectations of those who carry the burden of cancer.

Dr. John E. Niederhuber
Director, National Cancer Institute