Until the latter part of the 20th century, cancer was a virtually incurable disease, lacking even treatments that would prolong life by a few days; a cancer diagnosis of any sort was synonymous with a harrowing death sentence. But thanks to the intellectual obsession, political advocacy and translational research of individuals such as Sidney Farber, a pediatric pathologist and graduate of Harvard Medical School, this changed. It was Farber who used aminopterin, a folic acid antagonist, to induce remission in children with leukemia, thus inspiring the transformation and implementation of modern day chemotherapy. As a result of his ongoing work — and that of many other committed researchers — medicine can now cure certain malignancies.
Nevertheless, cancer remains one of the most enigmatic and destructive diseases in the world, affecting approximately one out of three individuals, and killing one out of four over a lifetime. It is also the principal killer disease of children in the United States. Even though we now have some successful therapies, many of these treatments often cause devastating long-term damage themselves. Thus, cancer has earned its recent title, given by Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee, as “The Emperor of All Maladies.”
Unquestionably, recent advances in molecular biology, genomics, biochemistry, genetics and many other related disciplines offer tremendous hope for novel, sophisticated therapies. Consider, for instance, ipilimumab, a human monoclonal antibody demonstrating efficacy in promoting survival for patients with advanced melanoma (the most aggressive form of skin cancer that is often notoriously difficult to treat). While ipilimumab is not curative at the present time, it at least offers affected individuals the hope for prolonging life.
As a prospective physician-scientist (MD/PhD), it is the promise of progress from future investment into innovative research that is so enthralling: few endeavors match its intellectual rigor, revolutionary capacity and inspirational power, as well as its actualized potential for promoting the well-being of humanity. Nevertheless, in order for such progress to be possible, the socio-political conditions must be fertile enough to attract and provide continuing support for researchers, doctors, students, professors and scientific experts to thrive in a research environment. The only way to create such conditions is through legislation and policymaking that are confluent with the goals of science and medicine.
As a survivor of high-risk acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), I took it upon myself to be an effective advocate for supporting the funding of research on Capitol Hill. Recently, I served on several review panels within the Department of Defense’s Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs (CDMRP), and I have acted as national lobbyist and advocate for the CureSearch National Childhood Cancer Foundation/Children’s Oncology Group, an international body of researchers and medical staff representing approximately 238 research institutions. We have worked tirelessly on obtaining financial appropriations from congressional committees and on passing The Caroline Pryce Walker Conquer Childhood Cancer Act of 2008, which authorizes the provision of $150 million for biomedical and clinical research for pediatric cancer. In 2008, this legislation passed unanimously in both houses of the United States Congress and was signed by former President George W. Bush. Disappointingly, our government has yet to fund this bill; apparently, this money for potentially life-saving research is not as important as other endeavors, despite the overwhelming legislative support for it. Equally, if not more, disturbing is the general trend in science funding, money that catalyzes progress against nearly all human disease conditions worldwide. Funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) suffered under the Bush administration and was cut by a further $1.6 billion this year. Under stagnant or decreased funding conditions, it is difficult to conceive how American science might still flourish and maintain a truly competitive, global edge.
As the Yale community has tragically learned with the deaths of Mandi Schwartz ’11, Natasha Collins MED ’12 and others in the past, cancer is ubiquitous, indiscriminate and utterly unapologetic: it has no regard for economic status, age, nationality, ethnicity, sexual orientation or religion. Thus, our only true option for subverting The Emperor of All Maladies is to make and honor an unfaltering commitment to promoting and funding biomedical research, regardless of international crises, political campaigns or meltdowns on Wall Street. Only with this commitment will we see the sorely needed life-saving advances that inspired Sidney Farber and for which we have been hoping and praying.
Carolyn Brokowski is a 2009 graduate of Berkeley College.