Cancer research is the foundation of our understanding of the disease and developing new treatments. Without special facilities and equipment, as well as dedicated researchers that are willing to devote their lives to cancer research, our progress would be infinitely slower.
At the same time, cancer research is expensive and requires significant funding in order to continue advances in both detection and treatment.
This article will provide an overview of where cancer research funding comes from, how it has evolved, and why it is essential for supporting ongoing cancer research initiatives.
History of cancer research
The first-ever documented case of cancer happened to be breast cancer in ancient Egypt, around the year 1500 BC. From that point on, cancer has been a scourge that humans have tried to understand and treat. However, it was not until the late 1800s that any real progress was made.
In the latter half of the 19th century, with the advent of the modern microscope, scientists discovered that cancer was a disease caused by cells growing out of control. This led to the development of the concept of oncology – the study of tumors.
In the early 20th century, in 1901, the main cancer treatment available to the public was surgery. Radiation therapy was only used in a limited number of cases, and chemotherapy did not exist.
The need for more knowledge about cancer and how to treat it led to the establishment of some of the world’s first cancer research centers.
First cancer research centers
The first cancer research center in the United States was the Roswell Park Cancer Institute, founded in Buffalo, New York, in 1898. Other centers soon followed, including the Institute of Cancer Research at Columbia University and the Rockefeller Institute.
These early cancer research centers were founded with the primary goal of understanding and attempting to cure cancer. Since there was no financial support available from the government or any other institutional source, these centers were primarily funded by private patrons. Wealthy individuals and families donated money to these centers in order to help find a cure for cancer.
First cancer research organizations
Soon after the first cancer research centers sprang up across the United States, cancer research organizations began to form as well. The American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) was founded in 1907 and is still active today. The AACR is a professional organization made up of doctors, researchers, and other medical professionals who are dedicated to cancer research. Its purpose is defined as “to further the investigation and spread the knowledge of cancer.”
The American Cancer Society (ACS) was founded in 1913. The ACS is a global non-profit organization that raises money for cancer research and provides support to cancer patients and their families. It counts more than 151,000 members and is currently one of the largest voluntary cancer organizations in the world.
These two organizations, along with cancer research facilities, were instrumental in the development of cancer research in the early 20th century. They played a vital role in funding and promoting early cancer research initiatives.
National Cancer Act of 1937
The first significant legislation regarding cancer research was the National Cancer Act of 1937. This act, signed into law by Franklin D. Roosevelt, provided the establishment of the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The NCI was created to coordinate and support cancer research initiatives across the United States.
The NCI was a major step forward in cancer research funding, as it provided a centralized source of funding for cancer research. This allowed for greater collaboration between different research centers and facilitated the sharing of information and resources.
National Cancer Act of 1971
In 1971, the National Cancer Act was amended and signed into law by Richard Nixon. This amendment, often referred to as the start of the “war on cancer”, established the National Cancer Advisory Board (NCAB) and the United States President’s Cancer Panel.
The NCAB was responsible for advising the Secretary of Health and Human Services on cancer research initiatives. At the same time, the President’s Cancer Panel was tasked with assessing the “war on cancer” progress.
This amendment also increased funding for cancer research and led to the development of new facilities, treatments, and therapies for cancer patients.
Since its passage, the National Cancer Act of 1971 has helped to dramatically improve our understanding of this disease and has led to significant advances in cancer treatment.
Cancer research funding today
Today, most cancer research funding comes from both the public and private sectors.
When it comes to receiving government support for oncology research, two agencies stand out: the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and, by extension, the National Cancer Institute (NCI).
Every year, the NCI receives a sum of money from the Federal government to fund cancer research initiatives. In the year 2020, the NCI received $6.56 billion. This money is mostly used to support cancer research at universities and hospitals across the United States.
Here is a breakdown of where the NCI’s funding went in 2020:
- 70.7% for cancer research
- 13.1% for resource development
- 10.3% for cancer prevention and control
- 6.0% for program management and support
In addition to the NIH and the NCI, two other government agencies provide significant funding for cancer research: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Department of Defense (DoD).
Private sector funding
Alongside government support for research, there are two large sources of private sector funding for cancer initiatives: foundations and pharmaceutical companies.
- Charity foundations
One of the most well-known cancer foundations is the American Cancer Society (ACS). Since 1946, the ACS has raised over $5 billion for cancer research. They provide funding to a wide range of cancer research initiatives, from basic science to clinical trials, and support for cancer patients and their families.
The main source of income for the ACS is donations from the public. In fact, the main source of income for a wide range of cancer foundations is donations from members of the public, which is why spreading awareness and education about cancer is so important. The more people know about cancer, the more likely they will donate to a cancer foundation and help support cancer research.
- Pharmaceutical industry
Another major source of funding for cancer research comes from pharmaceutical companies. Many of these companies have been developing new treatments and therapies for cancer, and they often invest large sums of money into cancer research initiatives.
However, this type of investment comes with a caveat – typically, pharmaceutical companies only invest in cancer research if they can also benefit from the findings. This has led to some controversy, as some people feel pharmaceutical companies are more focused on developing new treatments for profit rather than finding a cure for cancer.
Despite this, there is no doubt that the pharmaceutical industry has made significant contributions to cancer research. Many of the groundbreaking cancer treatments that we have today were developed with the help of pharmaceutical companies.
Is there enough money for cancer research?
With all of these institutions, organizations, and companies providing funding for cancer research, one might ask if there is enough money to go around. The answer is yes – and no.
- Uneven distribution
There is certainly a lot of money being funneled into cancer research, and the amount of money being raised every year is only increasing. In 2021, the NCI received an increase of over $120 million in funding compared to the previous year.
However, this money is not evenly distributed. A large portion of the funds supports research initiatives at a few prestigious institutions, while many other research centers and hospitals struggle to get by.
The funding is also unevenly distributed among the cancer types. For example, according to research, breast cancer and leukemia receive significantly more funding than pancreatic cancer or lung cancer relative to disease burden. The major reason for this is that both breast cancer and leukemia are at the center of social movements that have raised large sums of money for cancer research.
This disparity in funding is one of the main issues researchers are working to address. They understand that all forms of cancer need to be researched if we are ever going to find a cure, and they are working to raise awareness and funds for underfunded cancers.
- High number of research grant applications
Even though the government support for cancer research increased by 20%, the number of grant applications that the NCI received increased by almost 50%. This is because cancer research is a high-cost endeavor, and researchers are always looking for ways to secure more funding.
This discrepancy in the number of grant applications and the amount of money available for grants has led to a lot of frustration among researchers. Many feel that their work is not being funded because their research does not fit into the priorities of the NCI or other funding institutions.
This issue doesn’t only prevent new treatments and therapies from being developed; it also deters many young researchers from entering the field of cancer research.
- COVID-19 pandemic
Finally, we must not overlook the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on cancer research. With the scientific community’s attention shifting to urgent COVID-19 research, many cancer research projects have been put on hold.
This has resulted in a significant loss of funds for cancer research, and it is unclear how long this will last. The COVID-19 pandemic is a major setback for the field of cancer research, and much has to be done to make up for the lost ground.
Childhood cancer research
Now that we’ve explored some of the challenges that cancer research faces, let’s take a look at one particularly underfunded area of research – childhood cancers.
First, what are childhood cancers, and why is this area of research underfunded?
About childhood cancers
Childhood cancers occur in children and adolescents below the age of 20. They account for approximately 1-3% of all cancer cases in a given year, and they are the leading cause of death by disease in children aged 1-14 years.
Children (ages 1-14) are most commonly diagnosed with the following cancer types:
- Brain and other CNS tumors
- Malignant bone tumors
- Kidney tumors
Adolescents (ages 15 to 19) are most commonly diagnosed with the following cancer types:
- Brain and other CNS tumors
- Malignant bone tumors
- Thyroid cancer
- Testicular or ovarian cancer
- Germ cell tumors
Survival rates for childhood cancer are relatively high overall: 84.7% of children and 85.9% of adolescents diagnosed with cancer will survive for five years or more.
However, not all cancers have equal survival rates. For example, children diagnosed with a rare type of brain cancer (diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma) have only about a 10% chance of surviving up to 2 years after diagnosis.
Among those diagnosed with a type of kidney cancer called the Wilms tumor, children and adolescents ages 10-16 have lower 5-year survival rates than younger children.
It is clear that more research is needed to improve the survival rates for all types of childhood cancers.
Childhood cancer research funding
A statistic that highlights the lack of attention given to childhood cancer research is that only 4% of all cancer research funding goes to pediatric cancer research.
This is in stark contrast to the fact that cancer is the number one disease killer of children in the U.S.
There are many reasons for this discrepancy, but a big one is that there is no one government agency that is solely responsible for funding pediatric cancer research.
This lack of dedicated funding for childhood cancer research has resulted in very few advances in the treatment of these cancers over the past few decades. Most treatment options available for children with cancer date back to the mid-1980s.
Another reason why childhood cancer research is underfunded is that there is a perception that these cancers are not as deadly as adult cancers. Many also believe that childhood cancers are rare. While they are rare compared to adult cancers, they are not rare overall – there are more than 15,000 new cases of childhood cancer diagnosed in the U.S. each year.
Finally, one of the main reasons why there is a lack of funding, clinical trials, and treatment options for childhood cancers is that the pharmaceutical industry is less interested in developing drugs for this population. This is because the potential market for these drugs is much smaller than the adult cancer market.
So, what can be done to improve funding for childhood cancer research?
On a federal level, one solution is to create a dedicated funding stream for pediatric cancer research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
This would ensure that a significant amount of money is specifically earmarked for childhood cancer research. It would also help coordinate and unify the efforts of all the different agencies that fund pediatric cancer research.
Clinical trials for pediatric oncology are famously lacking in number and quality. One potential solution to this problem is to incentivize the pharmaceutical industry to invest more in pediatric cancer drug development by providing tax breaks or other incentives.
It is important to raise awareness about the seriousness of childhood cancers and the need for more funding for research. This can be done through campaigns and events like Childhood Cancer Awareness Month (in September).
Donations from the private sector are also critical to funding childhood cancer research. Parents and other family members can also support childhood cancer research by raising money and awareness through events like walks or runs.
With more dedicated funding, we can make real progress in finding new and improved treatments for childhood cancers.
The evolution of cancer research from its early days to the cutting-edge treatments and therapies available today is a testament to the dedication and hard work of researchers, doctors, and patients.
The main channels for cancer research funding are the public sector (government agencies) and the private sector (pharmaceutical companies, philanthropists, etc.).
While there has been significant progress made in cancer research over the past few decades, much more needs to be done. Childhood cancers are particularly underfunded, and this lack of resources has resulted in fewer advances in treatment options.
This is because childhood cancers are not paid as much attention as adult cancers by the pharmaceutical industry, which is essential for funding research and drug development.
There are many ways to improve cancer research funding, from creating a dedicated funding stream for pediatric cancer research at the National Institutes of Health to incentivizing the pharmaceutical industry to invest more in pediatric cancer drug development.
Raising awareness about the seriousness of childhood cancers and the need for more funding is critical. With the help of donors and the private sector, we can make real progress in finding new and improved treatments for childhood cancers.
If you’d like to help fight cancer and improve cancer research funding, please look at our active campaigns to learn how you can make a difference. Remember, every little bit matters!