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NCI director urges action to address delayed cancer diagnoses

Nov. 23, 2020, 10:37 AM


by Tom Wilemon

Delayed cancer diagnoses and treatment due to concerns about potential coronavirus exposure will lead to collateral deaths beyond the pandemic, National Cancer Institute (NCI) Director Ned Sharpless, MD, said Thursday during a virtual visit at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

Ned Sharpless, MD

“The cancer community should take collective action so that we don’t end up exchanging one public health emergency for another one,” said Sharpless, speaking during a Harrison Society Visiting Professor lecture.

He addressed how cancer researchers and clinicians have responded to the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the state of federal funding for cancer research, the importance of increasing diversity in cancer professions and the upcoming 50th anniversary of the National Cancer Act. During the event, he also answered questions from Tinsley Randolph Harrison Society Scholars and Alumni and met with leadership from Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center and the Department of Medicine.

“There are a number of things that we can do now to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on our patients,” Sharpless said. “This really relies on the creativity and ingenuity of academic centers like Vanderbilt to figure out how they can be open for business at a time when there is a lot of coronavirus in the community. I think we now know enough about the virus that we can do both. It is possible to preserve and prioritize certain kinds of cancer care that can’t be deferred but also do it in a way that is safe for patients and caregivers.”

Over the next decade, more than 10,000 people in the United States are estimated to die from breast cancer and colon cancer due to the impact of the pandemic, Sharpless said, characterizing the estimate as conservative.

“There is nothing about this modeling that would be unique to breast and colon cancer; we think similar effects will occur in every type of cancer due to delayed diagnoses and delayed screenings,” he said.

Telehealth has been a bright spot as cancer centers quickly adopted measures to serve patients remotely. The NCI and others, including public and private insurance payers, modified protocols, and Sharpless predicted that many of these changes would become permanent.

“The rapid transition to telework and telehealth was more successful than many of us would have imagined,” he said.

Although federal cancer research funding for the current fiscal year is unclear because a budget has not yet been approved, Sharpless said money would likely continue to be provided through continuing resolutions until Congress decides upon appropriations. Noting increased support from Congress over the past five years, he said, “I think what this indicates is broad bipartisan support for cancer research that exits in Congress presently. There is a feeling that cancer research is a good use of federal funds, and I think there is real excitement and enthusiasm in cancer research and that — with sufficient resources and appropriations — we can really make progress against this problem.”

Sharpless said he is advocating for increased research project grants (RPG) appropriations. Intense competition for funding has decreased the percentage of researchers who are successful.

“We are trying to increase funding levels for everyone in the RPG pool, so the bypass budget this year includes the implicit stated goal of getting to the 15th percentile by 2025,” he said.

The NCI is part of a National Institutes of Health initiative to increase diversity among medical researchers called the Faculty Institutional Recruitment for Sustainable Transformation (FIRST).

“We want to make sure the scientific workforce is as diverse as the American population,” he said.

Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of the National Cancer Act becoming law, he noted near the end of his lecture.

“This is an important event to commemorate,” Sharpless said. “I don’t think we should celebrate this anniversary. We still, despite 50 years of progress, have a long way to go in cancer. No one wants to spike the football on the 20-yard line. The progress in the last few years has been remarkable. It has led to a mastery of human biology that we didn’t even envision in 1971. I think it makes clear what we can do in the next years for our patients to reduce cancer suffering.”

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