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Risky cancer-research projects sidelined, some say

BY ZHANRAN ZHAO | JULY 06, 2009 7:20 AM

A UI professor of geography and a member of the health management and policy department, Gerard Rushton makes maps showing the outbreak rates of various types of cancer — such as breast and colorectal cancer — in Iowa communities.

His project may not deal directly with trying to find a medical cure for cancer. And while recent reports have knocked such “safe” projects as ineffective in the decades-long battle for cures, UI experts disagree, saying these projects are far from unimportant.

“It is very inappropriate to call them that,” said Professor George Weiner, the director of the Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center at the UI Hospitals and Clinics. “The research is not as fast as anyone would like. But cancer research is not a breakthrough today and a new treatment tomorrow.”

Rushton and other researchers are focusing on social and behavioral aspects, such as the effects of age or sex on disease-incidence rates.

“The primary purpose is to get communities to be paying attention and thinking about these factors,” Rushton said.

Some scientists have noted the seemingly uneven distribution in funding by the National Cancer Institute. The agency, which finances a majority of research projects in the United States, tends to award projects with a definite promise of data. Innovative and more risky proposals — with less chances of results — have a harder time getting money.

The problem lies partly with how grants are evaluated.

“If one-third of grant applications are good, but [the institute] can only fund one-tenth, then it will fund the ones that are not as risky,” Weiner said.

The National Cancer Institute ranks and funds grant proposals based on five criteria. Significance and innovation, arguably the two most important criteria for research, are overlooked in favor of the other topics because of the high risk involved in novel research, Weiner said.

Furthermore, the competitive grant system pressures investigators to spend more time writing grant applications than conducting research, Weiner said.

He added this has increasingly led scientists —including at the UI —to scope out private sources of funding or switch to more stable and financially rewarding careers as physicians or pharmacists.

But reforms are already underway, Weiner said. This year, the National Cancer Institute shifted its evaluation criteria to put greater emphasis on the significance and innovation areas.

Still, it’s not yet clear how much of an impact these changes will have.

UI cancer researchers receive about $20 million annually from the National Cancer Institute, and another $50 million from private organizations and philanthropies such as the UI Foundation and the American Cancer Society.

The funds are distributed to scientists across the campus, where they are used for studying prevention, treatment, and a variety of sometimes risky pilot projects. But the goal is the same, whether or not the researcher uses test tubes and lab coats —or maps.

“The ultimate goal is trying to understand the developing of [cancer],” Weiner said. “And innovation is there at each step.”


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