How Does Federal Cancer Research Funding Work?

In just a few short weeks, we’ll be in the midst of another eventful Pediatric Cancer Awareness Month. That means plenty of parties, walks, and other special events dedicated to raising awareness of the pediatric cancers impacting children throughout Indiana and the rest of the world. It’s all about helping people understand what these diseases are, how limited we are in our resources to fight them, and what they can do to make a difference.

As we think about what we’re working to do as an endowment, we think it’s important to help others understand some of the complicated workings of our federal healthcare funding systems, including those that finance pediatric cancer research, and why they’re falling short in the effort to find new treatments for common and uncommon childhood cancers.

In this post, we’ll explore how Congress funds cancer research through the National Institutes of Health (NIH). We’ll take a look at the budget allocated to the National Cancer Institute (NCI) for cancer research. Finally, we’ll also discuss why pediatric cancer gets such little funding and the need for privately funded research like the vision we have at the Caroline Symmes Cancer Endowment.

The President’s Budget

The first step towards funding cancer research on a federal level is the approval of the President’s Budget, an annual budget that covers all federal agencies (including the National Institutes of Health and the National Cancer Institute). In a way, this acts as an indication of the President’s priorities, and must be approved by Congress before being signed and implemented by the President.

This helpful infographic from the NCI itself offers a simple but thorough explanation of this process:

National Cancer Institute Research Allocation

With the execution of the President’s Budget, NIH then makes its funds available to the NCI for the year. In 2016, NCI’s budget for cancer research was $5.21 billion. It’s a huge number, and is an increase of $260.5 million over the 2015 budget. These dollars are used for research grants, for training programs, and other costs associated with cutting-edge cancer research. It’s the backbone of our effort to treat a broader number of cancers with increased efficiency.

Here’s where we run into trouble when it comes to pediatric cancer. The total budget of over $5 billion is an enormous amount of money, but it all comes down to how that money is allocated. Ultimately, only 4% of that money is dedicated to pediatric cancers. This is in large part a matter of numbers; there are simply a greater number of adult malignancies than pediatric cancers, and those adult cancers therefore get a bigger portion of the budget.

Overcoming the Funding Challenge

According to Dr. Wade Clapp, Chairman of the Department of Pediatrics at Indiana University’s Herman B. Wells Center, this presents a tremendous challenge for those investigators looking to overcome childhood cancer.

“There are just so many more patients and cases with adult cancer,” Says Dr. Clapp. “You think about the vast numbers of patients that have breast cancer, prostate cancer, colon, lung; those are many folds higher than the number of malignancies in children. And furthermore, the malignancies in adults tend to be in comparison a relatively small number of cancers. But children’s malignancies are much broader, and they’re orphaned diseases, meaning there aren’t as many people working on them. They’re often more diverse in terms of the tumor of origin, or the cell of origin. It’s just entirely different scales of individuals working on children’s cancers. And in some ways, they’re more complex.”

In other words, the NCI puts more money towards adult cancers because they see a greater impact overall when looking at the numbers. For investigators like Dr. Clapp and others working toward new pediatric cancer treatments, however, that means the money has to come from somewhere else if they have any hope of making progress.

This is where we come in. With our fundraising goal of $8 million, we can gain a whopping $57 million in matching federal grants to build and fund a pediatric cancer research center at Riley Hospital for Children, right here in Indianapolis.

Looking for a place to start helping? Visit our “How To Help” page for ideas to help fundraise, our “Events” page to find upcoming fundraisers and awareness events near you, or our “Donate” page to contribute today.

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