US cancer specialists issued an urgent appeal this weekend for more budget allocations for cancer research, which have been decreasing in the country for four years threatening to delay introduction of new treatments.
"Cancer research is in a serious crisis," said Doctor Robert Ozols, chairman of the Communication Committee at the American Society of Clinical Oncology, which opened its 43rd annual meeting here Friday.
The forum, which will continue until June 5, has brought together more than 25,000 researchers.
Other ASCO officials and representatives of the scientific community, including National Cancer Institute Director John Niederhuber, called on Congress to increase the budget of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) by about seven percent as early as next year and beyond.
The NIH is the biggest public medical research organization in the world.
In recent decades, significant US federal funds have allowed researchers to make significant progress in the fight against this disease, which is the second leading killer on the planet after cardiovascular diseases, doctors pointed out.
As a result of this progress, two-thirds of people diagnosed with cancer remain alive five years after their diagnosis, compared with 50 percent in 1975, they stressed.
In addition, the total number of cancer deaths has begun to decline for the first time in 70 years, according to statistics from the American Cancer Society presented by some of the researchers.
Today there are 10 million American cancer survivors, compared with 3.7 million 30 years ago.
Recent advances in the fight against cancer have resulted in the doubling of the biomedical research budget to the United States from 1998 to 2003, according to cancer specialists.
But in the last four years, this research budget shrunk by 12 percent in real terms.
"The pace of progress is at risk," said Allan Lichter, ASCO executive president and chief executive officer.
"Our primary concern is that we are pulling the plug on exciting new areas of research when they are starting to bear fruit, and at a time of unprecedented scientific opportunity," he added.
The sequencing of the human genome is also allowing to begin decoding different genetic mutations responsible for different forms of cancer.
Cancer is a very complex disease stemming from genetic alterations that are most often linked to the process of aging, said Dr. Niederhuber.
With the genome map "we are moving rapidly to target functions of cancer, toward a more personalized treatment," he pointed out. "Progress has never occurred at such a pace before."
In addition to terminating research programs, the decrease in funding discourages a growing number of young promising scientists, who prefer to go into business or pursue other more lucrative endeavors, deplored Dr. Lichter.
The conference will feature the presentation of results of about 30 clinical trials.
More than 4,000 research papers have been accepted by ASCO. They will focus on treating advanced liver, gastrointestinal, lung, head and neck as well as breast cancer.