Pancreatic cancer, which claimed the life of astronaut Sally Ride in July… (NASA Handout )
Deep in the fine print of a $633-billion defense bill signed by President Obama on Wednesday, a provision aimed at the National Cancer Institute may hasten the development of earlier detection and treatment methods for deadly malignancies such as pancreatic cancer.
The Defense Authorization Act signed into law Jan. 2 carried along the Recalcitrant Cancer Research Act, a measure pressed by the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network and the Lung Cancer Alliance to shift the focus of the federal government's cancer research toward malignancies with poor early-detection and low survival rates.
Pancreatic cancer, which will claim the lives of more than 37,000 this year, has the lowest five-year survival rate, at 6%, of any of the major cancers.
The measure requires the director of the National Cancer Institute to identify cancers with a five-year relative survival rate below 50% and within 18 months, to develop a scientific framework for research on such cancers. That framework would not only summarize promising research on those cancers, but would identify under-researched areas, shortages of qualified researchers, and questions that need to be answered for survival rates to improve. That document should guide the NCI's allocation of research grants, the law states.
Within six months, the NCI's director must identify two or more cancers that claim the lives of at least 30,000 patients a year in the United States and have a five-year survival rate lower than 20%, and convene a special working group to help shape research and provide expertise.
Alongside pancreatic cancer, cancers of the liver, lung, esophagus and ovaries are widely seen as those with poor prognoses. Among patients with a diagnosis at any stage of these cancers, the American Cancer Society estimates overall five-year survival rates to be 14% (liver), 16% (lung), 17% (esophageal) and 44% (ovarian).
In a statement, Julie Fleshman, president and chief executive of Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, called the new measure "a historic victory in the fight against deadly cancers."