President Jimmy Carter, recently diagnosed with widespread melanoma with growths in the brain, announced on Dec. 6 that he is tumor-free after being treated with the latest immunotherapy, a treatment that would not have been available even a year ago.

Coincidentally, the federal funding omnibus bill earmarked a $2 billion (6.65 percent) funding increase for the National Institutes of Health, and a $264 million (5.3 percent) increase to the National Cancer Institute, the largest increase for biomedical research since 2003 and badly needed. With federal research budgets failing to keep up with inflation, cancer researchers have been forced to take our foot off the accelerator, just as we are starting to see the delivery of powerful new therapies that were unimaginable even a few years ago.

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The support for basic biological discoveries that form the pipeline of opportunities for new cancer diagnostics, treatments, and strategies for prevention, continues to be disproportionately low relative to the potential for more breakthrough therapies and to the alarming rise of cancer rates. According to the National Institute on Aging, the annual number of new cases is projected to rise to 17 million by 2020, and reach 27 million by 2030.

After 40 years of research, it could be a watershed moment. We’re at last seeing the potential for new immunotherapies to combat melanoma and advanced lung cancer – therapies that involve activating the patient’s immune system to reject the tumor and thus radically alter the course of these once almost-always fatal diseases. Recently approved therapies have reduced risk of death from melanoma by 32 percent and lung cancer by 27 percent.  Some melanoma patients are experiencing complete and durable clinical regressions. We are only now beginning to exploit new knowledge with regard to precision medicines and immunotherapies. Much is still to be learned.

Most recently, new research paradigms for cancer research spearheaded by efforts such as Stand Up To Cancer are helping to push science forward. Interdisciplinary teams of scientists spanning from basic discovery science to surgeons and oncologists collaborate to accelerate the translation of new breakthroughs to patients as well as to push forward the understanding of the disease itself. In many cases this process depends upon collaboration with drug companies and international scientists. A major benefit of this collaborative model has been to reduce the total time taken to explore a new idea. 

Moreover, multidisciplinary research teams have helped nucleate multidisciplinary care teams, resulting in better quality of care for patients with new cancer diagnoses. These teams deliver coordinated care that leads to the most effective and individualized treatment plans encompassing surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and immunotherapy. 

All of this progress is dependent upon the foundation of excellent basic and clinical research supported by the National Cancer Institute.  Its strong financial support is essential if we want organizations such as Stand Up to Cancer to be able to continue advancing what many see as the promising shift toward more interdisciplinary, inter-institutional teams working to accelerate basic science discoveries and clinical trials through greater transparency and knowledge sharing.

Cancer research across the U.S. is delivering:  the FDA’s Oncology Drug Approval Scorecard included 12 new therapies for 2013, nine for 2014, and 17 by end of 2015.

The riddle of the most complex disease known to mankind will not be solved in fiscal year 2016. It will not be cured with a single treatment approach.  Still, our arsenal against cancer is growing, and more discoveries and therapies are in the pipeline – but these will only be realized if we sustain our efforts. To deliver powerful new therapies and ultimately control this disease, we simply cannot let up.

Sharp, Nobel Laureate, is professor of the David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT and chairperson of the Stand Up To Cancer Scientific Advisory Committee.  Nelson is director of the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins and co-serves as vice-chairman of the Stand Up To Cancer Scientific Advisory Committee.