The across-the-board cuts in Federal spending known as “sequestration” will have a significant impact on the future of cancer research in the United States, according to experts.

“Sequestration is a mindless cut with the potential to seriously impact progress in the detection and treatment of the deadliest cancers,” said John Seffrin, CEO of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, in a statement. “More than 1.6 million people in America will be diagnosed with cancer this year, and we need lawmakers to work in a bipartisan effort to quickly restore funding for cancer research and prevention programs and make the fight against cancer a top national priority.”

Sequestration was intended as an option so unpalatable that Congress would be forced to arrive at a budget deal rather than see it go into effect. Unfortunately, the strategy backfired, no deal was reached, and Federal agencies are now determining which programs must be cut. Funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) will be reduced by 5.1%. That will lead to more than 1,300 fewer research projects being funded as well as a loss of 20,500 jobs and $3 billion in economic activity.

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NIH director Francis Collins, MD, said that the agency will try to “prioritize things that seem most promising, most critical to public health, but there’s no question there will be across-the-board damage to virtually everything.”

The National Cancer Institute (NCI) accounts for $5 billion of the $30.9 billion NIH budget, and it will almost certainly have to bear a significant portion of the reduction in spending.

In a letter to Congress, the presidents of three of Seattle’s leading health care institutions wrote, “Research funded by NIH has resulted in huge discoveries in cancer treatments, and sequestration will set us back decades in terms of lost opportunities. Today’s advancements in the areas of genomics, personalized medicine, blood diagnostics, and immunotherapy bring us to the brink of new, ground-breaking discoveries that will be lost or slowed down. What other treatments and cures will go unrealized if sequestration occurs?”

Speaking to members of Congress about the effect of sequestration on the fight against multiple myeloma, Ken Anderson, MD, director of the Jerome Lipper Multiple Myeloma Center at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, said that recent progress in multiple myeloma research has made it a chronic, treatable disease for many patients. “Without NIH/NCI funding, this amazing progress simply would never have happened,” said Anderson.

“Sequestration will stifle medical discoveries that save children’s lives and inhibit the development of treatments for children with cancer,” said Maureen Lilly, co-chair of the Alliance for Childhood Cancer and Executive Director of the Children’s Cause for Cancer Advocacy. “When research funding slows or stops, its promise for improving the future for children with cancer disappears.”

An attention-grabbing headline on the news website The Daily Beast read: “Sequester Cuts Put More Cancer Patients at Risk of Dying, Researchers Say,” but that’s probably overstating the case. There’s no reason to think that cancer mortality will rise in the short term as a result of budget sequestration.

However, the interruption of cancer research may have consequences that will persist even after the budget mess gets straightened out, advocates say. “You cannot turn research on and off like a light switch,” said Edward E. Partridge, MD, Director of the University of Alabama at Birmingham Comprehensive Cancer Center, in a statement. “Disrupting clinical trials and cutting grant funding midstream could put an end to some promising research efforts and compromise progress against a disease that is killing 1,500 people in this country every day.”