NCI Director Varmus: "we’re making a pretty good effort" against childhood cancer....

The Senate HHS Appropriations Committee convened a hearing today (May 11, 2011) on the FY12 budget for the National Institutes of Health. NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins testified. He was accompanied by four NIH institute directors, including NCI Director Dr. Harold Varmus. Subcommittee Member and childhood cancer advocate Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) asked a question regarding support for pediatric cancer research. Dr. Varmus’ response begins at 56:28 of the webcast. Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH), another advocate for our cause, asked about pediatric cancer clusters in OH. That discussion can be found at 85:48.


The entire webcast can be viewed here.


This is Dr. Varmus’ response (along with some point/counter-point additions):

"Senator Reed thank you very much and I appreciate you’re honoring my colleague Dr. Rodgers.

You are correct in that the amount of money we specifically identify as being devoted to pediatric cancer research is about 4% of our budget, which is about $200 million. But of course a great deal of other funding that we’re involved in addresses cancer more generally and is applicable to pediatric problems. [American Association of Cancer Research - "Kids' Cancers Are Different, Kids' Cancers Behave Differently"]

Let me say a few words more broadly about pediatric cancer. Chairman Harkin alluded to the fact that we do cure most patients with leukemia. Pediatric cancers in general are much more effectively treated, whether they are brain tumors [United States Cancer Statistics - Mortality dropped from 0.7 to 0.6 per 100,000 from 1999 to 2007], neuroblastoma, Wilms tumor or leukemia [United States Cancer Statistics - leukemia death rates remain the same from 1999 to 2007]. But never the less there still is an increased incidence of childhood cancer by about 30% over the last several years, but a continuing decline in mortality. [Dr. Peter Adamson - "In fact, the overall death rate from cancer for children ages 14 and under between 1997 and 2005 diminished only slightly, from 2.6 to 2.4 per 100,000"]. Never the less mortality figures do not tell us the whole story. There are severe consequences of being treated for cancer at an early age. Developmental defects, loss of mental capacity in some individuals and of course a very high incidence of second tumors, particularly in survivors in their 20s and 30s. We’re trying to address these issues in a variety of ways.

We’re trying to understand the cancers more profoundly, in the genomic sequencing techniques that Dr. Collins alluded to, we in fact have spent Recovery Act money on a new project to study pediatric cancer in great detail and we have new therapeutic maneuvers that are based on more targeted, bullet specific drugs and anti-bodies that have been very effective in reducing mortality rates in neuroblastoma and leukemia with therapies that are less toxic. We have paid a lot of attention to survivors of pediatric cancer. We have a nationwide survivor study for pediatric cancer that has enrolled over 20,000 patients in roughly 37 different centers. [The Childhood Cancer Survivor Study is co-funded by NCI along with funding from St. Jude]

So with these and other projects we think we’re making a pretty good effort to control the consequences of treatment of pediatric cancer and do a better job in treating pediatric cancer in a less toxic manner.

But you are correct, we could do more. But as you know we have budget constraints this year and it’s unlikely that we will see a very significant increase in that domain or any other in the coming year."


Pretty good?


Is that what we should tell our kids?


We STILL disagree Dr. Varmus.


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At a bare MINIMUM, we should still be allocated the amount approved in the last fiscal year budget, which was never fulfilled.


Loraine Keck

Annapolis, MD

Is that true? They are allocating an infinitesimal amount, and then to add insult to injury, not even distributing it?
De. Varmus is a bureaucrat who is still defending directing the majority of funding for cancer research towards adult cancers, because they will make much more money for the drug companies when the drugs developed are patented, than pediatric cancer drugs will ever so. He did not even mention Osteosarcoma, which is the number 2 cancer killer of children. He would be 'singing a different tune' if one of his own children or grandchildren were diagnosed with cancer and the only drugs available were developed decades ago - EVERYTHING changes when the situation becomes personal.

Justifying his position by stating that even though there are more cancer diagnoses now than before, the survival rate is higher, is simply pathetic. Only allocating 4% of the entire budget towards pediatric cancer research is indefensible and unacceptable. What is his motivation; does he want a cushy board position with a pharmaceutical company lined up for when he retires? The blood of thousands of dead, dying and suffering children, along with the anguished hearts of their loved ones, are both on his hands. I hope that someday, the cries of millions of grieving parents who have lost children to pediatric cancers, haunt all of his dreams.

Don't kid yourselves; this isn't about anything more than pandering to and selling out sick children for the benefit of "Big Pharma".

I am not a parent with a child with cancer. I am an adult who's father died too soon of prostate cancer, and a friend who has lost a an adult friend to cancer, and who is loosing another dear sister-friend to cancer. Kid's cancer isn't exactly personal, but parents in the cancer world have been tremendous support to me. Because so much money goes to adult cancers what energy I have (I am a PhD student) to devote to the cancer world I've decided to give to pediatric cancer. 

I am appalled at Dr. Varmus's comments. He needs to get his hands dirty in the pediatric cancer world. I assume he lives in D.C. so it wouldn't be hard for him to go up to CHOP, MSKCC, Dana Farber, or John's Hopkins, to talk to parents of and their children with cancer. He is too detached. Just as it is my duty as a researcher (I am getting a PhD in education) to maintain concrete ties to those I research (teachers), it is his duty to take time to visit one of these hospitals to see the impacts of his decisions. He'll be better at his job for it.

Let me tell Doc, my son Brady was one of the few with leukemia you didn't cure.  This guy and the NCI are just a front for BIG Pharma and nothing more.  After all treating and curing prostate cancer is just ever so more important to all the 65 year men than finding a cure for all the Bradys in the world who never reached their second birthdays!


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