An advocacy group representing over 60,000 researchers is going up against a bipartisan bill that would direct $887.8 million in NCI funds for pancreatic cancer research.
Keith Yamamoto, chair of the Coalition for the Life Sciences, sent a letter to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce to address “major unintended, adverse consequences” inherent to the Pancreatic Cancer Initiative, a measure that has significant support in both houses of Congress.
A product of lobbying efforts by the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, the bill would severely undermine the peer review system and cripple NCI’s ability to oversee pancreatic cancer research, according to critics, who say it would prompt other disease-specific advocacy groups to seek similar earmarks to bypass NIH and NCI authority (The Cancer Letter, August 3).
The bill directly authorizes spending funds on pancreatic cancer research—however, in this era of flat budgets—it is hard to believe that funds would come from anywhere other than NCI’s budget, which would lower the funds available for other areas of cancer research.
“While we all want rapid progress in the diagnosis, treatment and cure of this deadly disease, [the Pancreatic Cancer Initiative] could in fact inhibit such progress,” Yamamoto wrote to Committee Chair Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and House Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) on behalf of the coalition.
CLS represents the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, American Society for Cell Biology, American Society for Clinical Investigation, Genetics Society of America, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and the Society for Neuroscience.
The legislation lists a perceived lack of progress in pancreatic cancer research as a reason for Congress to intervene. The institute’s approach to pancreatic cancer is mischaracterized, said critics of the bill, since NCI funding and research in the disease has expanded over the past decade.
“NCI is committed to addressing the awful toll of pancreatic cancer,” Yamamoto wrote.
Yamamoto is a professor at the University of California, San Francisco, in the Department of Cellular and Molecular Pharmacology, as well as vice chancellor for research and executive vice dean of the university’s school of medicine.
He is also chairman of the Board on Life Sciences at the National Research Council, a unit of the National Academy of Sciences, and has served as a consultant and advisor to NIH for 32 years. In 2008, Yamamoto co-authored a prominent report on examining and optimizing the NIH peer review system, available here: http://bit.ly/QGX2MP.
“[NCI’s] plans have been made within an overall research context based on a broad perspective that will remain essential to the understanding, treatment and cure of pancreatic cancer,” Yamamoto said. “A legislative mandate, such as H.R.733/S.362, that constrains that perspective will not serve patients or their families.”
The bill effectively isolates pancreatic cancer research from developments in other biomedical and cancer research areas because of the “narrow scope and separate authority” of the 13-member coordinating committee that would allocate the funds, said Yamamoto. NCI will only have one vote on this committee.
“This capacity for findings in one disease, or area of research, or experimental system, to inform others is especially crucial for the most complex difficult problems, the ones that provide the fewest clues, such as pancreatic cancer,” he said.
The direction of the bill will be very difficult to change because of the number of cosponsors, but the coalition is willing to work with Congress to mutually advance a strategic plan, said CLS director Lynn Marquis.
“I would suggest, if we can, to look at working within the NIH and the NCI to come up with a coordinated plan that reviews the prospects for furthering our understanding of pancreatic cancer as well as other cancers that are incredibly difficult to understand,” she said.
“NIH does a fantastic job of funding the best science based on merit,” said Marquis. “Congress and NIH can work together to ensure advances are made in our understanding of this disease, without circumventing the NIH process of evaluating grants and programs.”
The text of Yamamoto’s letter follows:
Dear Representative Upton,
I write to you as chair of the Coalition for the Life Sciences (CLS). The CLS represents the interests of six diverse and highly respected biomedical and clinical research organizations*with an aggregate membership of over 60,000 researchers from every state across the country.
CLS seeks to alert you to two major unintended adverse consequences inherent to the Pancreatic Cancer Initiative (PCI; H.R.733 and S.362).While we all want rapid progress in the diagnosis, treatment and cure of this deadly disease, PCI could in fact inhibit such progress.
Our specific concern with PCI is with its mandate that the HHS Secretary create a 13-member Interdisciplinary Pancreatic Cancer Coordinating Committee, with only a single member from the NCI. This group would be charged with setting research strategies, defining budgetary needs, appointing a peer review committee to evaluate and prioritize research grant applications, and recommending for exception funding pancreatic cancer applications that fall short of the payline.
The first adverse consequence of PCI is that the Coordinating Committee would oversee a review process outside of the National Cancer Institute(NCI)and the rest of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to allocate NCI funds. This separate authority to prioritize and award grants would bypass and disrupt the NIH-wide merit review system, which has, for over 65 years, identified and selected for support the most important biomedical discoveries in the world. H.R.733 / S.362 would also limit the perspective of the NCI Director, Nobel Laureate Harold Varmus, in defining the overall research priorities of his institute and coordinating his efforts with those of the other NIH Institute Directors. Ominously, PCI is intended to set a precedent, inviting other groups to similarly bypass NCI and NIH authority.
The second adverse consequence of PCI is that it would isolate, by virtue of the narrow scope and separate authority of the Coordinating Committee, pancreatic cancer research from remarkable discoveries being made in other cancers and across the biomedical research landscape. This capacity for findings in one disease, or area of research, or experimental system, to inform others is especially crucial for the most complex, difficult problems, the ones that provide the fewest clues, such as pancreatic cancer. In fact, a distinguished panel from the National Academy of Sciences recently asserted that our understanding of health and disease would grow deeper and faster by integrating our knowledge and investigations around disease mechanisms rather than putting boundaries between studies of affected organs. The PCI would create a separation, and motivate further separation, at exactly the wrong time.
NCI is committed to addressing the awful toll of pancreatic cancer. It has an action plan for research initiatives, and has increased pancreatic cancer funding by 300% over the past decade despite a flat overall budget. Importantly, these plans have been made within an overall research context based on a broad perspective that will remain essential to the understanding, treatment and cure of pancreatic cancer. A legislative mandate, such as H.R.733 / S.362, that constrains that perspective will not serve patients or their families.
I, or any of my colleagues on the CLS, would be happy to discuss the recent advances in pancreatic cancer research and to discuss ways we can mutually advance a strategic plan that helps win the fight against this deadly cancer.
Keith R. Yamamoto