I had the fortune to join the first Rally for Medical Research in Washington D.C. Although certainly not the largest political rally in recent memory, it was perhaps, one of the most relevant since it focused on funding medical research which affects virtually everybody.
The American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) played an essential role in organizing the event outside the Washington convention center on the steps of the Carniegie library at Mt. Vernon Square. 18,000 scientists, physicians, and patient advocates were in attendance at the annual AACR meeting, and these were the majority of rally attendees. In addition, though, more than 200 medical research organizations and consortia signed on to support the rally.
Dr. Margaret Foti, CEO of AACR, opened the event, which was intended to, "emphasize to our policy makers that medical research must become a national priority." She asserted that there is, "a critical need to steadily increase investments in the National Institutes of Health (NIH) medical research to improve health, spur progress, inspire more hope, and save lives."
Cokie Roberts followed Dr. Foti and assumed the role of emcee for the event. Ms. Roberts, a cancer survivor herself who was treated at the NIH, commented that, as a member of the board of the Children's Inn at NIH "it could not be a stupider time to cut back on funding for medical research." She noted that, "we are right on the cusp of so many breakthroughs and this is exactly the moment to push forward, certainly not pull back."
When congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, who represents the third district of Connecticut and is an ovarian cancer survivor, spoke next, she noted that between 1998 and 2003 congress doubled NIH funding. This investment, she explained, has increased the cure rate for childhood leukemia to 90%, produced a cervical cancer vaccine that can save 4,000 women a year which die from this disease, brought stem therapy to clinical trials, and lead to 11 new approved cancer drug in the past 18 months. DeLauro emphasized that, "these breakthroughs do not just happen. We have to keep funding the lifesaving research that pushes the frontiers of medical science." She emphasized that, "We are not talking about parks, roads, and bridges, here today, but we are talking about life."
Representative DeLauro also noted that every dollar spent by the NIH produces an additional $2 in new economic activity. A statistic she might have obtained from the Unified for Medical Research report on the NIH's role in Sustaining the U.S. Economy. The report also outlines the large number of jobs produced by NIH funding.
A number of individuals whose lives have directly benefited from new and experimental treatments also spoke. These included a father who donated his bone marrow to save his daughter from leukemia via an experimental procedure performed at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, a 4-year triple negative breast cancer survivor that can celebrate her daughter's sixth birthday, and the board member for the American Diabetes Association that has been able to manage her type I diabetes for 39 years with virtually no complications with the help of an insulin pump.
There were many other patients, advocates, and politicians who also spoke in support of medical research at the event which ran almost 2 hours. Dr. Marc Tessier-Lavigne, President of Rockefeller University described how, over the last century, federally funded research has successfully produced public-private partnership where "basic scientists churn out discoveries that companies build on to produce cures." However, he noted that basic scientific investment, which has been flat for the last 10 years, is at its lowest in 50 years—a trend which threatens to "kill the goose that laid the golden egg."
Chris Van Hollen, representative for Maryland's district 8, expanded on Dr. Levine's point above, by noting the irony that other countries, such as China, are copying the very successful model of funding biomedical research that has worked so well in the US while we are retreating from it.
A first of its kind, the organizers hope the Rally for Medical Research event initiates a grass roots movement of doctors, researchers, and patients that advocate for basic research funding. As Maura Tierney, who spoke on behalf of Stand Up to Cancer, noted, 1 in 2 men and 1 in 3 women will develop cancer in their life time. Also, other speakers pointed out that chronic disease such as diabetes and Alzheimer's are on the rise threatening more and more. Even the few individuals lucky enough to avoid being directly diagnosed with a serious disease will feel the impact through those close to them that succumb.Disease affects everyone and we all have an interest in finding cures. Given this, it's not clear why anyone would allow the engine producing the cures for these diseases to flounder. Perhaps the most surprising thing is that a rally is even needed to point out how important it is to maintain these funding resources. However, with a 10 year freeze on research funding and now the sequester cuts, it seems we all need to sound the alarm before it is too late.
Published: April 8, 2013