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When Government Funding of Ovarian Cancer Research Is Not Enough

Photo: Courtesy of Ovarian Cancer Research Association

Ovarian cancer is considered a rare disease; one in 78 women will get it in their lifetime. However, it is the number one cause of gynecologic cancer deaths. Because there is no early detection test, ovarian cancer is often diagnosed in later stages, when the disease is advanced. In fact, only 15 percent of cases are diagnosed in early stages. Ovarian cancer claims nearly 14,000 lives each year and wreaks havoc on the nearly 22,000 people and their families who are diagnosed annually.

And yet, as deadly as the disease is, research into the origins and treatment of ovarian cancer remains disproportionately underfunded by the federal government.

The U.S. Government invested $276.5 million in ovarian cancer research over a 25-year period. That may sound like a lot, but compared to other cancers, it’s actually a small amount.  For instance, Congress directed $1.53 billion toward prostate cancer research over those same 25 years — five and a half times more than ovarian cancer. The National Cancer Institute spent nearly 19 times more per-person-years-of-life-lost on prostate cancer than ovarian cancer over a seven-year period, and, just last year, prostate cancer research got 1.5 times more National Institutes of Health funding than ovarian cancer. 

While it’s true that prostate cancer is more common than ovarian cancer, it’s not nearly as deadly. The 5-year survival rate for prostate cancer is more than double that of ovarian cancer. As the deadliest women’s cancer, ovarian cancer deserves more.  

With such limited government funding, it is hard to attract struggling new talent to the field.  Young researchers often have new and exciting ideas they’d like to pursue, but federal funding typically goes to more tried and true projects. This is where the aid from nonprofit and advocacy organizations comes in. 

Charitable grants, such as from Ovarian Cancer Research Alliance (OCRA) provide initial funding which can be so crucial to enable these investigators to start their careers and pursue novel ideas. The organization’s larger grants fund collaborations between established senior scientists who want to try something new and innovative.  

“In those first three years, when it’s so hard to get your first grant and it’s so touch and go, that OCRA grant carried me,” said Dr. Ron Buckanovich, Professor of Medicine and Director of Ovarian Cancer Center of Excellence and Co-Director of the Women’s Cancer Research Center at the Magee Women’s Research Institute and UPMC Hillman Cancer Center of the University of Pittsburgh. “It allowed me to keep doing ovarian cancer research, when otherwise, I would be one of the many people studying breast cancer. Not to malign them, but we need more people doing ovarian cancer research.”

While breakthroughs in research don’t happen every day, progress is happening daily–steady advancements that build upon each other. Stopping is not an option; success begets success, and even negative results are important and useful. 

“I tell my trainees and colleagues what I learned from one of my mentors: Don’t be afraid of taking risks,” said Dr. Juan Cubillos-Ruiz, Assistant Professor of Immunology in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City. “Be bold. Propose absolutely disruptive ideas that no one had ever contemplated before. That’s critical in science. That’s what drives innovation.” 

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