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Health & wellness

Cancer science leans more on industry funds

Trend fills gap left by budget cuts, but also worries many researchers

WASHINGTON — Cancer institutes across the country are relying more heavily than ever on pharmaceutical industry funding for research as the proportion of federal support shrinks, raising concerns among scientists struggling to compete for the next oncology breakthrough.

At Boston’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, industry money makes up nearly a quarter of its research support, compared with 10 percent a decade ago, according to the institute. The federal share of research money has eroded during that time from more than 70 percent of funding to just under 60 percent.

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A Globe survey of major cancer institutes shows that the shift at Dana-Farber reflects a national trend. Even as researchers seek funding from pharmaceutical companies, they raise questions about the increasing role that the pursuit of profits plays in science, the impact on the kinds of research ultimately conducted, and the future of cancer therapies.

“I worry that the type of research is subtly shifting,” said Dr. Barrett Rollins, chief scientific officer at Dana-Farber. “Government is really the only entity that can support unfettered research because it recognizes that there may be a great time lag between a discovery and its application that benefits society. Shareholders would not want a company to think that way.’’

“Company-sponsored research is really about benefitting a company,’’ Rollins said. “There is a high expectation of a practical outcome over a short timeline.”

While both the industry and federal funding pools have risen over the decade, pharmaceutical industry funding for research has grown much faster. In addition to Dana-Farber, other major cancer institutes have sought industry support to help offset the shrinking percentage of federal dollars, including the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center in Baltimore, the University of California San Francisco, and the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Dr. Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, said he worries about whether the government is abdicating its responsibility to science as a result of stagnant federal funding. The NIH research budget has lost almost 25 percent of its purchasing power since 2003, after accounting for inflation, he said.

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“The success stories that have gotten us some pretty major advances in cancer have really depended upon federally funded basic science research, which is not directly connected to a product and therefore less likely for industry to support,” Collins said. “If you cut the foundation away, which is the basic science discovery, what exactly will be there years from now in therapeutics and diagnostics?”

As a result of these financial trends, the competition for research grants is the most daunting in NIH history, he said, with just 17 percent of proposals winning grants compared with the historically more typical rate of more than 30 percent. For cancer research, it’s even more competitive. Less than 14 percent of cancer grant proposals get funded, a situation Collins deemed “demoralizing” and “unhealthy.”

The government will fund only the best proposals, as judged by peers in the scientific community. But scientists have become “risk averse because things are so tight,” Collins said. “They’re aiming for the more predictable experiment.”

“That causes me a lot of anxiety in the middle of the night,” Collins said. “How are we going to get through this and not waste the opportunity to advance the field and alleviate suffering and prevent unnecessary death? We are not chasing that goal as vigorously as we could be.”

President Obama, whose mother died from ovarian cancer, said while campaigning in 2007 that he would push to double the funding for cancer research within five years. But given his incremental budget proposals and the national spending constraints forced by Congress, the budget for the National Cancer Institute, the nation’s main source of cancer research funding, has risen only 5 percent since Obama was elected in 2008.

At Dana-Farber, the primary reason for the shift toward industry support is driven by scientists desperately seeking alternate sources of funding, said Rollins, who, even as he expressed concerns, praised industry for “stepping up to plug the gap.”

Whereas a decade ago many scientists frowned upon industry collaborations, the new focus is on making research more immediately applicable, thus making cancer institutes a more appealing target for pharmaceutical company largesse.

The institutes have not been shy about seeking such money.

Two years ago, Dana-Farber hired a chief business development officer with a Rolodex of industry contacts to connect researchers with companies interested in funding their work. Industry now spends more than $63 million a year on research at Dana-Farber — nearly five times the industry research investment a decade ago.

Sixty percent of the money goes toward clinical trials; the rest toward preclinical research. Federal dollars allocated to Dana-Farber research also grew significantly, but at a slower rate, from $100 million to $166 million during that time.

The push toward greater industry investment worries even some scientists who are funded by pharmaceutical companies.

“I don’t think it’s a real solution,” said Dr. William Hahn, director of the Center for Cancer Genome Discovery at Dana-Farber. “Industry may be funding science but they often put restrictions on when that data can be shared. That’s not the best thing for science.”

Dana-Farber, like most other academic medical centers, will not allow industry collaborations that prohibit scientists from eventually publishing their data. But some company-sponsored drug trials require nondisclosure agreements to allow the company time to file a patent — a compromise academic medical institutes say they have made as the price of winning funding. Asked what his current research is about, Hahn demurred. “It would not be appropriate for me to discuss that,” he said. “This is one of the consequences of industry funding. They don’t want their competitors to know what they’re working on.”

Dr. Richard Schilsky, chief medical officer at the American Society of Clinical Oncology, based in Alexandria, Va., said that while academic institutions have mechanisms in place to guard against conflicts of interest, questions of transparency still arise with industry-sponsored research. There are no new federal regulations policing how industry and academic centers collaborate.

“There’s always concern about the corporate sponsor being too directive of the research, too controlling of access to the data that’s generated and the dissemination of results,” Schilsky said. “There’s risk that not all the data will see the light of day if it doesn’t serve the company’s corporate goals.”

Industry representatives said rapid advancements in science have prompted pharmaceutical companies to collaborate with academic researchers. The days are gone when companies were able to rely entirely on their expertise within a disease area, forcing companies to seek outside knowledge, said Anthony Coyle, head of Pfizer’s Centers for Therapeutic Innovation, based in Boston.

“We gain access to emerging science much quicker by working with scientists in academia,” Coyle said. He acknowledged that industry needs to “be much more mindful” of scientists’ publishing goals while being able to “protect and patent our findings.”

Dr. Kwok-Kin Wong, a Dana-Farber oncologist whose studies using genetically engineered mice that develop spontaneous lung cancer is funded by AstraZeneca, said it is a mutually beneficial partnership. The company’s support allows him to explore scientific questions about the immune system, and his research helps the company better understand their drugs. But he said scientists should be wary about “just becoming the drug development arm for a company. At the end of the day, you want to move the science forward, too.”

Most of the therapeutic breakthroughs in cancer research began as basic science observations funded by the federal government.

One example is Gleevec, a “miracle drug” that turned a certain kind of leukemia from a death sentence into a chronic disease with normal life expectancy. But, Collins said, it took 40 years from the discovery that this type of leukemia was caused by the rearrangement of two chromosomes to the drug’s appearance on the market.

Collins and the directors of cancer institutes across the country say the funding climate is demoralizing for young scientists, with researchers spending the majority of their time writing grant proposals instead of publishing studies.

“There’s this negativity that’s being bred in science,” said Dr. Ronald Buckanovich, an oncologist at the University of Michigan who last week spent two days at a Washington area hotel reviewing NIH grant applications. “Your job is to find all the flaws to weed out grant proposals. People are just hypercritical now.”

Buckanovich has faced rejection from the NIH as well as industry. He was forced to abandon a clinical trial testing how a leukemia drug would work for ovarian cancer after six months because a company he declined to name pulled its drug, complaining the research was taking too long. “They wanted to see results and they wanted it quickly,” he said. Now Buckanovich is working on a smaller project for a different company. “You’re almost like a hired gun rather than doing the science you really want to do.”

Tracy Jan can be reached at tjan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeTracyJan.

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