New Study Finds Many Deadly Cancers Attract the Least Amount of Funding

A new study from Northwestern University has found that many deadly cancers don't receive the same funding as other, less fatal ones.
Christopher McFadden

Northwestern University has recently released a report that many deadly and common cancers don't get the funding they really need. These vital areas of research received the least funding from non-profit research organizations for all cancer types.

This study is the first of its kind to compare nonprofit funding distribution in the United States across cancer types.


What are the least funded forms of cancer research?

According to the report, colon, endometrial, liver and bile duct, cervical, ovarian, pancreatic and lung cancers were amongst those that received the least funding. This is worrying as they are pretty common and tend to be fatal.

While also problematic, breast cancer, leukemia, lymphoma, and pediatric cancers were all well-funded. Thought this is not a bad thing, their relative impact on society is less than more deadly forms of cancer, the study noted.

Corresponding author Dr. Suneel Kamath, who was the Chief Fellow in the Department of Hematology and Oncology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine when he conducted the study said:

"The goal of this study is not to divert funds away from cancers that are well-supported, but rather expand funding for other cancers that aren't getting enough support currently."

"These are all deadly and life-altering diseases that deserve our attention and support," he added.

The nationwide study, using IRS tax records for nonprofits, was conducted between 2017 and 2018. They looked at those organizations that support any type of cancer and made at least $5 Million in annual revenue in 2015. 

According to their findings, from the 119 organizations examined, a total of $5.98 billion was raised for cancer-related research. Of this, the lion's share ($4.59 billion) went to general cancer charities with no focus on one disease (e.g. American Cancer Society).

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Using this data, the authors compared the amount of revenue for each cancer type with the number of new cases, a number of deaths and number of years of life lost to see if the amount of funding for each cancer is proportional to how common and/or deadly it is.

Here are their findings: 

cancer research funding results
Scatter plots using logarithmic scales for both the x and y axes of annual revenue versus mortality. Source: Northwestern University

The role of non-profits and cancer research

Non-profit organizations offer a vital role for research into various forms of cancer. They are also vitally important for other medical-related research fields.

These organizations also help to support the education of patients and their families as well as influencing health policy. Underfunding of these common cancers could negatively impact research, drug development and the number of FDA drug approvals for poorly funded cancers.

"Well-funded patient advocacy organizations should be applauded for their successes," said co-author Dr. Sheetal Kircher. Sheetal is the Assistant Professor of Hematology and Oncology at Feinberg and a Northwestern Medicine Oncologist.

"We hope to bring awareness to the organizations with less relative funding so we can collaborate to improve funding and outcomes for all patients with cancer," she added.

Why do some cancers receive more funding than others?

The studies findings are worrying, but what are the underlying causes? Why do some cancers seem to receive more funding than others?

This is, in part, the main driver for the study. The team explored factors that may influence which cancers attract more funding than others

One main reason seems to be public support or awareness for types of cancer.  For example, cancers that are associated with a stigmatized behavior, such as lung cancer with smoking or liver cancer with drinking, we're all poorly funded.

"Shame and discomfort with talking about our bowels and 'private parts' may be reducing funding for diseases like colon or endometrial cancer," Kamath explained.

The study was originally published in the Journal of the National Comprehensive Cancer Network.

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