Nobelist James Watson's August 5 New York Times Op-Ed "To Fight Cancer, Know Thy Enemy" could not be any more right. However, Watson could not be any more wrong in his belief that new "miracle drugs acting alone or in combination" are the answer. The right answer is to take action to prevent cancer before it starts.
Watson's belief in "miracle drugs" is echoed by claims of the National Cancer Institute (NCI) for the success of "innovative treatment" or "targeted drugs." However, Nobelist Leland Hartwell, President of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Control Center and leading national oncologist, warned in 2004 that "Congress and the public are not paying NCI $4.7 billion a year," most of which is spent on "promoting ineffective drugs" for terminal disease. Furthermore, the costs of these new biotech drugs have increased over 100-fold over the last decade without any evidence supporting their effectiveness in improving survival rates. Meanwhile, the NCI budget has escalated further to $6 billion this year, of which a mere $130 million, 2.17%, is allocated to prevention.
Reflecting concerns that cancer prevention received no attention in President Obama's Cancer Plan, a June 9 letter by myself and 20 other national experts on prevention was addressed to four Congressional committees: the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions; the Senate Appropriations Committee; the House Committee on Energy and Commerce; and the House Appropriations Committee.
We recommended that Congress enact legislative reforms to the 1971 National Cancer Act, including a statement that it is the policy of the United States to reduce cancer-causing (carcinogenic) exposures by at least half during the next decade. We also recommended that the NCI be responsible for the publication of a comprehensive public register of all known carcinogens in air, water, consumer products and the workplace, with annual updates as necessary.
Finally, we recommended major policy changes for the NCI. These included the appointment of a new Deputy Director for Cancer Prevention, and the allocation of at least 40% of the Institute's budget to prevention programs as from 2010.
The Obama Administration has so far been unresponsive to any of these recommendations.
Samuel S. Epstein, M.D. is professor emeritus of Environmental and Occupational Medicine at the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health; Chairman of the Cancer Prevention Coalition; and author of over 200 scientific articles and 15 books on cancer, including the groundbreaking The Politics of Cancer (1979), and Toxic Beauty (2009).