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Government-funded research is extremely important in advancing the understanding of cancer, how it develops, how it is diagnosed, and how it can be treated and even cured. Government institutions such as the National Cancer Institute and the National Institutes of Health, among others, work with academics and pharmaceutical company researchers to fund and advance research that helps to fight cancer.
The federal government plays an important role in the research of cancer of all types, but mesothelioma lags behind in dollars spent. There are a few reasons for this, including the disease’s rarity and a lack of public awareness for this kind of cancer. Still, there are several important groups, studies, and clinical trials that are ongoing that are making an impact on mesothelioma and government funding and organizing is vital to them.
Federal Funding of Mesothelioma Research
The federal government funds all kinds of research, including cancer research. The amount spent on other types of cancer is high compared to the amount spent on mesothelioma research. This is because mesothelioma diagnoses only number in the few thousands per year and because people are not very aware of mesothelioma and don’t advocate for its research as much as many people do for other illnesses.
Another reason that funding is lower for mesothelioma is that any kind of research, with any source of funding, relating to mesothelioma is fairly new. It was only in the middle of the 1900s that it finally became clear that asbestos was causing this illness. And then, it still took decades for many people to be diagnosed with mesothelioma since the latency period is decades long.
The National Cancer Institute (NCI) is one of the most important sources of funding for cancer research in the country. NCI receives funding as part of the National Institutes of Health and through mandates from the U.S. Congress. The budget for the NCI in 2016 was $5.21 billion, a small increase from the previous year. Less than $10 million is spent each year on mesothelioma research. For instance, in 2010 the NCI allocated only $6 million to mesothelioma research. This is as compared to $631 million the same year for breast cancer and $300 million for prostate cancer.
Independent studies of this funding have found that there is a significant mismatch in cancer funding, through the NCI and other sources. Some types of cancer are funded much higher than the burden they have on health and health care costs. For instance breast cancer and prostate cancer receive a huge portion of the budget while others are underfunded even though they have relatively high burdens. This is likely due to greater awareness for those cancers with higher funding.
Department of Defense Funding
The National Institutes of Health and NCI are not the only sources of government funding for cancer and mesothelioma research. The Department of Defense (DoD) gets involved in medical research when it pertains to members of the military. Veterans who served in the U.S. Navy in particular were put at serious risk of being exposed to asbestos and of developing mesothelioma. A significant percentage of diagnoses of mesothelioma are U.S. military veterans.
Activism by veterans and others with mesothelioma and those that have loved ones with the disease led to the formation of the Peer Reviewed Cancer Research Program (PRCRP). In 2008, this DoD-funded program awarded its first grant to a mesothelioma researcher. The following year PRCRP awarded four more grants with two of them going to mesothelioma research. Increases and new sources of funding like this come directly from people advocating for it. More awareness of mesothelioma and how it affects people, including veterans, helps to directly increase research funding from the government.
Another important way in which the government participates in mesothelioma research is by managing and approving clinical trials. Clinical trials are specialized research designed to test the safety and effectiveness of novel treatments, medications, and surgeries. The new treatment is first tested in a laboratory and using animals and only then moves into a small human trial, or a phase I clinical trial.
These trials are managed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) because the treatments being tested will ultimately have to be approved by the FDA before being available to more people. Some examples of important mesothelioma clinical trials that are ongoing include the use of genetically-modified viruses to attack and kill mesothelioma cells in patients and the testing of atezolizumab, a lung cancer drug being tested on patients with mesothelioma.
The importance of clinical trials cannot be understated. New treatments cannot be approved by the FDA until they have gone through this four-phase process. This is how new and emerging treatments are tested and made available to more people who can benefit from them. This is how effective treatments are developed and advanced.
The National Mesothelioma Virtual Bank
The National Mesothelioma Virtual Bank, or NMVB, is another government-based organization helping to advance mesothelioma research. The NMVB is funded through the National Institute for Occupational Health (NIOSH), which is part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. NIOSH has a stake in mesothelioma research because it is responsible for helping to advance knowledge about workplace dangers and to recommend ways to keep workers safe.
The NMVB is a specimen registry that collects and maintains samples of blood and tissue from patients with mesothelioma. The patients whose samples are collected and held have given consent for the registry to keep them for the purpose helping advance research. The goal of the NMVB is to support research that advances the knowledge of how to diagnose and treat mesothelioma. Having blood and tissue samples is crucial for researchers, so the NMVB has an important role to play.
The search for better treatments for mesothelioma, and for better ways to diagnose it early, involves many people and institutions. Through its organizations and its funding, the government has an important part in this research. Without government funding, clinical trials, tissue banks, and grants, research would be slow and advances that actually help people would be few and far between.
Page Edited by Patient Advocate Dave Foster
Dave has been a mesothelioma Patient Advocate for over 10 years. He consistently attends all major national and international mesothelioma meetings. In doing so, he is able to stay on top of the latest treatments, clinical trials, and research results. He also personally meets with mesothelioma patients and their families and connects them with the best medical specialists and legal representatives available.