- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 16, 2003

When you have brought the enemy to its knees, you do not turn tail and give up the fight. This axiom of military strategy appears to be lost on the nation's lawmakers, who stand poised to deprive medical researchers of the dollars they need to see their wars on disease through to the finish. Just as they deliver funds to protect the homeland in the name of national security, so legislators should provide for the nation's health security. With breakthroughs in heart disease, Alzheimer's, multiple sclerosis, diabetes, and cancer on the horizon, congressional failure to meet the National Institutes of Health's budget requests could devastate research and delay lifesaving treatments.

Last spring, President Bush submitted a 2003 budget that contained funding increases for NIH to match research needs, but the logjam on appropriations bills in the 107th Congress stalled this critical provision. If the 108th Congress does not pass the 2003 budget bill in January, then this year's federal medical research funding will be stymied at the 2002 budget level. The administration must pressure congressional leaders to pass its original funding proposal or risk endangering progress on essential research.

Not only scientists working at NIH headquarters but also researchers at academic and independent laboratories nationwide would be affected by a failure to meet NIH's fiscal requirements. As an example, consider the case of the National Cancer Institute (NCI), just one of the NIH's eleven research centers. The NCI is requesting $5.69 billion in 2003 to cover both its own outlays and those of its research affiliates across the country. In light of the toll cancer exacts each year taking the lives of 500,000 men, women, and children, with 1.2 million new victims diagnosed annually the $5.69 billion does not seem such a high price to pay. The cost is especially reasonable when compared to the nearly $61 billion in medical expenses that went to treating cancer patients last year alone.

NCI and its affiliated cancer centers would devote their increased funding to causes like boosting the number of Americans newly diagnosed with cancer who enter into early clinical trials. The money would also underwrite the continued exploration of promising new therapies, including approaches that analyze the contribution of genetic and environmental factors, demystify molecular functions and decode the cancer cell. With such investigations underway, the medical community is on the brink of being able to read the signatures on cancer cells and use the information to detect cancer at its earliest stage, to diagnose and classify tumors according to their molecular profiles and to devise treatments that selectively target molecular signatures.

The field of cancer is a microcosm for broader American leadership in global medical research. Since the declaration of the "war on cancer" in 1971, US scientists have pioneered treatments of childhood leukemia, testicular cancer and other formerly hopeless forms of the disease. Beyond the cancer field, federally funded research by scientists at U.S. academic institutions and independent laboratories has provided a lifeline to people stricken with fatal illnesses in this country and abroad. If the NIH's request for increased funds is not met, the most exciting new work on cancer and other health threats from disease to bioterror will be curtailed.

The lack of resources could also divert the next generation of talented young scientists into other careers, endangering a vital sector of the American economy. Precious lives depend on the ability of researchers from different fields to bring their varied expertise to bear on the newly mapped genome, on the threat posed by microbes wielded by terrorists and rogue regimes and on the ongoing struggle against neurodegenerative conditions, heart disease and cancer. By delivering on the NIH's budget request, Congress can bring the benefits of multitiered research to the American people and their allies abroad.

To fulfill its mandate, the NIH requires the freedom of a fully funded creative environment. Strong research programs, support structures and collaborations are the key elements of the drive to critical discoveries. Let's deploy sufficient resources to let the guardians of the nation's health do their job and bring diseases and dangerous microbes to the point of surrender.

Retired Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf is a board member of Friends of Cancer Research.

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