Filling Critical Gaps: Where Grants for Cancer Research Are Going so Far This Year

science photo/shutterstock

science photo/shutterstock

February 4 was World Cancer Day, and while there have been dramatic advancements in detecting and treating the disease, a cure is still elusive. Cancer is the second leading cause of death worldwide, according to the World Health Organization, and was responsible for nearly 10 million fatalities in 2018 alone. Cancer happens when normal cells grow abnormally and form a tumor—in the case of cancers of the blood, an unusual number of white blood cells develop. Rather than one single disease, cancer is an umbrella term used to describe more than 200 diseases

Last year saw significant momentum in several hot areas of cancer research, including immunotherapy, which harnesses the body’s self-defense system to attack the disease, and precision medicine. Also last year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved 18 new cancer therapeutics and expanded the use of 10 previously approved treatments to include new types of cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, “the death rate from cancer in the U.S. has declined steadily over the past two decades.” Still, over 600,000 Americans died of cancer in 2018.

Cancer continues to inflict a massive toll on societies around the world, and remains a top cause for foundations and philanthropists who are coming at this challenge from a range of angles. This private grantmaking has become more important, given the flatlining of federal research investments, a circumstance that has limited the ability of scientists to conduct research that advances the screening, prevention, diagnosis and treatment of cancer.

Despite recent increases to its budget, the National Cancer Institute is still only able to fund a small fraction of new research proposals (12 percent in 2017 vs. 28 percent 20 years ago, in 1997). 

This decline in federal funding for biomedical research has caused two significant problems. First, fewer grant applications are funded, which reduces the rate of discovery. Second, we are losing a generation of brilliant minds who do not see a future in basic biomedical research as a result. Although the NIH has recently increased support for young investigators, funding for such researchers is not robust. The decline in the number of grants to scientists under age 46 reflects the shrinking number of young people going into science. Of course, the NIH is famously less inclined to back high-risk research initiatives.

This is where philanthropy becomes pivotal. As we’ve reported, many private funders, well aware of how limited their resources are compared to government spending, aim to maximize their impact by investing in people and projects that might not otherwise receive funding. Philanthropic support also benefits research into less common cancers that are neglected by government and industry because they affect few people.

Philanthropy’s approach to cancer has been on vivid display a little over a month into 2019. So far this year, we’ve tracked nearly $80 million in new commitments toward cancer research around the world. A majority of that money has gone to underfunded forms of cancer and young investigators. 

A Focus on Kids

Alex's Lemonade Stand Foundation (ALSF) recently launched a $25 million initiative in support of childhood cancer research. With a “focus on developing a comprehensive, attainable plan for identifying cures for pediatric cancers,” the Crazy 8 Initiative recently brought together 90 cancer industry leaders to address eight critical areas in pediatric cancer research: neuroblastoma, embryonal brain cancers, high-grade gliomas, fusion positive sarcomas, fusion negative sarcomas, leukemia, the use of big data and the acceleration of clinical trials.

Like so many funders, ALSF started small with modest gifts and grants. It has now become a major player in childhood cancer philanthropy. According to the foundation, childhood cancer is the leading cause of death for young people under the age of 15, but cancer research is severely underfunded. Less than 4 percent of the federal government’s total funding for cancer research goes toward childhood cancers each year.

"Although we have humble front-yard beginnings that started with our daughter's lemonade stand, we have an ambitious large-scale plan to eradicate childhood cancer as the No. 1 disease killer of children," said Liz Scott, Alex's mother and co-executive director of the foundation. "The Crazy 8 initiative is a giant step toward solving the many challenges of finding new cures for children with cancer." 

A Stalwart Funder Increases its Support for Young Investigators

The Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation dates back to 1946. This funder's niche is backing promising early career cancer researchers. Recently, the foundation named 18 new Damon Runyon Fellows. The recipients of this four-year award are outstanding postdoctoral scientists conducting basic and translational cancer research in the laboratories of leading senior investigators across the country. The fellowship “encourages the nation's most promising young scientists to pursue careers in cancer research “by providing them with independent funding ($231,000 total) to work on innovative projects.

The foundation also named six new recipients of the Damon Runyon-Dale F. Frey Award for Breakthrough Scientists. This award provides additional funding to scientists completing a Damon Runyon Fellowship Award who have greatly exceeded the foundation’s highest expectations and are “most likely to make paradigm-shifting breakthroughs that transform the way we prevent, diagnose and treat cancer.” Each awardee will receive $100,000 in research funding.

In a surprising move, the foundation also announced that it will increase its Junior Faculty Grants by 33 percent in 2019. 

A Funding Collaborative Takes on Brain Tumors

There are more than 120 known types of brain tumors, some more prevalent and deadlier than others. An estimated 700,000 Americans are living with a brain tumor and approximately 70 percent of those with a malignant tumor will not survive as a result of their diagnosis. For the most common form of primary malignant brain tumors—glioblastoma multiforme, which afflicted John McCain—the five-year relative survival rate is only 5.6 percent. Brain and other nervous system cancer is the 10th-leading cause of death for women.

The Brain Tumor Funders' Collaborative (BTFC) is a partnership of six organizations—the American Brain Tumor Association, Brain Tumour Foundation of Canada, James S. McDonnell Foundation, Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation, Sontag Foundation and an organization wishing to remain anonymous—that have pooled their resources to become more strategic by focusing their research support on specific therapeutic goals. The collaborative approach provides a level of support that would normally be beyond the scope of any individual funding organization. To that end, the BTFC announced $3 million in grants to fund four projects that will examine vaccination strategies, the tumor’s microenvironment, anti-tumor T-cells and personalized immunotherapy approaches.

New Funding for an Often Neglected Cancer

The Neuroendocrine Tumor Research Foundation (NETRF) announced eight new grants totaling $2.5 million. According to a press release, with this funding, “NETRF expands its portfolio to include research into lung neuroendocrine tumors (NETs), which affect about one in four NET patients.”

NET is what afflicted Steve Jobs—in his case, an unusual form of pancreatic cancer—and it is estimated that approximately 12,000 Americans will be diagnosed with NET cancers each year. The incidence of NETs has risen six-fold in the United States over the last three decades. The causes and progress of the disease are poorly understood, and diagnosis is often delayed—sometimes up to seven years. 

As a less common cancer, NETs lag behind other cancers for research funding. “Neuroendocrine tumor is a neglected tumor type that doesn’t get its due funding from the National Cancer Institute and other organizations,” said George Fisher, co-chair, NETRF Board of Scientific Advisors.

NETRF funding focuses on “innovative and transformational ideas, such as leveraging findings made in other cancer types to accelerate progress in NETs.” The eight new projects explore some of the latest advancements in cancer and include such things as CAR T-cell therapy conjugates; understanding the impact of mutations in key genes in NETs; improving outcomes by combining biomarkers and radiomics; the use of “smart” chemotherapy, and testing a new cancer vaccine on NETs.

Money for a Deadly but Underfunded Cancer

METAvivor Research and Support Inc., a nonprofit organization dedicated to funding research for Stage IV metastatic breast cancer (MBC), announced its research grants for 2018. Metavivor initially announced $3.4 million in metastatic breast cancer research awards in November of 2018. The research awards are focused on metastatic breast cancer and advancing options for treatment and therapies for patients.

Metastatic breast cancer (also known as Stage IV or advanced stage cancer) is the spread of breast cancer to other parts of the body—most commonly to the bones, liver, lungs and/or brain. Approximately 30 percent of breast cancer patients metastasize, with the mean survival after diagnosis being 33 months. In the U.S., only 2 to 5 percent of all cancer research funds are dedicated to Stage IV cancer research—yet 99 percent of all breast cancer deaths are caused by a metastasis. 

According to a press release from the organization, Beth Fairchild, president of METAvivor, said, “Metavivor focuses grants specifically on stage IV metastatic breast cancer research. This area of breast cancer research is very underfunded. These research grants will enhance the understanding of metastatic breast cancer, and help develop greatly needed therapeutic options to combat this complicated disease.”

In England, Tackling Blood Cancer and Chronic Inflammation

Recently, Imperial College London received a gift of £10 million ($13.1 million) from Hugh and Josseline Langmuir in support of research into the causes, mechanisms and treatment of myeloma. The Langmuir gift will establish the Hugh & Josseline Langmuir Centre for Myeloma Research. Funds will “provide cutting-edge facilities, equipment, and collaboration space for researchers and clinicians and support efforts to recruit, train and support talented researchers from around the world.” Given the campus’ convenient West London location, it will provide the opportunity for co-location of academics, global companies and businesses that will facilitate collaborations between researchers, multidisciplinary groups, and startups in other fields. 

Myeloma, a type of blood cancer that develops in plasma cells, affecting the bones, kidneys and immune system, is currently incurable. Multiple myeloma is a relatively rare type of cancer that develops in the bone marrow and often spreads to multiple sites within the body. Myeloma typically occurs in older adults (over 60) and the disease is more prevalent in men than women. It carries a poor prognosis and requires more effective treatments than currently exist.  

Imperial has received attention for a small, early-stage clinical trial that produced the first clinical evidence that a newly developed but unlicensed drug selectively kills myeloma cells in the marrow while leaving healthy tissue untouched. The new infusion of funding will allow researchers to attempt replication of the initial results in larger trials.

In other news from the U.K., the charity Cancer Research U.K. awarded about U.S. $26 million to a team of international investigators to study inflammation-related cancers. Co-investigators from the United States, United Kingdom, Canada and Israel will investigate strategies for preventing cancer in patients with chronic inflammation and to devise new treatments for those cancers. Their initiative is one of three new projects awarded multi-million-pound grants as part of the charity’s global “grand challenge.”