MARCH ON D.C.: Activists Want More Research Funding
An estimated 150,000 people gathered on the Mall in Washington, DC, Saturday "to demand the nation make curing [cancer] its top health care priority." The Washington Post reported that the rally "was a rare collaboration of advocates for the scores of loosely related illnesses marked by the relentless growth of malignant cells. Long split among separate hospital wards and competing foundations, cancer patients and their supporters came together to sound a louder cry for their common goal: increased federal funding for cancer research." During the daylong event, "[s]ome speakers took pains to emphasize the sheer number of people struck by cancer each year -- a far higher number than those killed by arguably more celebrated causes, such as AIDS or gun violence." Speakers included Vice President Al Gore, retired Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, Rev. Jesse Jackson and former Sen. Bob Dole (R-KS). Gore said, "We want to be the generation that wins the war against cancer and ends that war in victory. We will not rest until we have a cure for cancer" (Argetsinger/Whitlock, 9/27). The vice president also called on the Senate "to move on the confirmation of Jane Henney, an oncologist whom the administration nominated to head the federal Food and Drug Administration" (Baum, Los Angeles Times, 9/27).
A key theme cited by rally participants was the need for more cancer research funding. Activists contended that there "is a chronic shortage of funds in the national network of test centers that figures out how best to use new cancer treatments," and they decried the fact that "the basic research that produces new ideas for cancer treatment gets only a quarter of the money recommended by scientists." Former junk-bond king Michael Milken said at a Capitol Hill hearing last week, "We are here with a simple, urgent message. We must get serious about the 27-year-old war on cancer, moving from a war of attrition to a new plan of attack." Some questioned whether more research funding would be enough. "Do we have a coordinated strategy for ending this problem? I think the answer is no. That needs to change, and it's not going to change by just pouring more money at the problem," said Barbara Brenner, executive director of Breast Cancer Action --"one of several activist groups that declined to endorse the march" (Gillis/Goldstein, Washington Post, 9/26). Check out the march's official website: www.themarch.org.
In his Saturday radio address, President Clinton "introduced an assortment of new anti-cancer initiatives, including a proposal by the cancer institute to let patients participate in reviewing research grant proposals and policies." Clinton ordered the NCI "to make it easier for patients to participate in trials of new cancer treatments, and called on Congress to cover the costs through Medicare." In addition, the president "urged Congress to increase financing for research over the next five years by 65%" (Cushman Jr., New York Times, 9/27). Clinton also used his address to "challenge ... the scientific community to develop by the year 2000, new diagnostic techniques for every major kind of cancer so we catch it at its earliest and often most treatable stage" (transcript, 9/26).
The FDA Friday approved Genentech's Herceptin for treating "an especially severe form of breast cancer." The approval came "less than three weeks after an advisory panel offered its endorsement" of the drug (Sternberg, USA Today, 9/28). According to the Wall Street Journal, Herceptin will cost "between $10,000 and $20,000 for each course of therapy." The drug "acts on a specific gene to slow the most aggressive form of metastatic breast cancer, which could add months or years to the lives of more than 50,000 patients diagnosed with the condition annually in the U.S." (King Jr., 9/28). Acting FDA Commissioner Michael Friedman said, "The increasing use of biological products such as Herceptin to treat the underlying causes of diseases is an exciting development in medicine" (Jacobs, Los Angeles Times, 9/26).
Congress gave final approval Friday to a bill guaranteeing "all women who undergo mammogram tests ... direct notification of the results -- in language that's easy to understand." Rep. Thomas Bliley (R-VA), one of the measure's key sponsors, said, "The Senate did the right thing by passing our legislation containing the notification requirements. Women deserve to know the results of their mammograms in understandable language. Many lives may be saved" (Hardin, Richmond Times-Dispatch, 9/26).
The current issue of U.S. News & World Report looks at Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski, a Houston physician who claims to have an effective treatment for cancer patients who "have failed to benefit from standard medical treatments and who have reached the end of hope." Patients travel from around the world to be treated by Burzynski, but the FDA wants to know more about his treatments and "has spent 20 years and $2 million trying to force [the physician] to put his antineoplastons through standard testing regimens." Under court order, Burzynski is enrolling his patients in trials and reporting the data to the FDA. This week, "a respected cancer newsletter plans to publish a review of Burzynski's clinical trials saying that they won't provide meaningful results." And in preliminary study of the data, the FDA said it saw "no evidence of improvement in eight types of cancer and a response rate in brain cancers that is too small to determine if patients are being helped" (Brownlee, 10/5 issue).