Science Careers a Hard Sell in Tough Times
AACR works to help attract and retain young scientists
Many in the cancer community talk about their concerns for the future should the United States be unable to attract and retain new investigators in the field. But Margaret Foti, MD, PhD, chief executive officer for the American Association of Cancer Research (AACR), is hopeful.
“One could be depressed about the number of people leaving the field, but we have 1000 members at the high school level—something that was unheard of awhile ago,” Dr. Foti says. “There are still a number of young people who are stimulated and excited about cancer research.”
The biggest challenge is funding.Today, only 1 in 10 promising research proposals get funded, and, on average, researchers are 43 years old when they get their first grant. Both basic scientists and physician scientists are leaving academia for positions that offer better job security, ranging from industry to jobs in policy, medical editing, and administration.
“Many young researchers are motivated by the feeling that they're doing something good for humanity, and that often gets people into the field, but then there are practical, economic realities,” Dr. Foti adds.
AACR leaders,like other cancer organizations, hope that the research climate will improve with support from the new Congress and President Barack Obama's administration. (See “PolicyWatch.”) The lack of funding to encourage young researchers is particularly frustratingwhen somuch promising research is on the cusp of development. More than 10,000 research projects at NIH could be funded and started today, AACR notes.
AACR leaders are focused on the Senate-approved Specter-Harkin amendment to the economic stimulus bill, which would add $6.5 billion to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), bringing the total $10 billion, including $1.3 billion for the National Cancer Institute
We've noticed an increase in the number of students working in the labs of our mentors. —Robin Felder
Still, AACR leaders are doing what they can to attract young people into the field and to support their professional development. The organization has 3 main programs to train the next generation of cancer researchers.
The first involves inviting high school students from the host-city region to participate inAACR's annual meeting. The 8-year-old program enables students to attend lectures and learn about career opportunities, including internships in AACR members' laboratories. They also hear from a young cancer survivor about his or her personal experience. Students are matched with scientific mentors and guided through the conference. They are given the opportunity to present a poster on their own laboratory research. An average of 200 to 300 students attend each year, along with their teachers. AACR is expanding this effort to include high school students in some of their other meetings throughout the year.
“We are launching some new initiatives to try to keep them engaged and involved with us and to track their professional development afterward,” says Robin Felder, AACR director of membership.
At the undergraduate level, the organization also offers funding to third-year undergraduate science majors to attend 2 consecutive AACR meetings. One-on-one mentoring is available, and students are guided through research presentations. Many go on to graduate school, join AACR, and submit research into the general program, Felder notes. The third program is an undergraduate student caucus and poster competition at the annual meeting.
“We've noticed an increase in the number of students working in the labs of our mentors,”Felder adds. “And a lot of our attendees will bring their children or he students who work in their labs to the annual meeting.”
In addition, AACR offers a reduced-fee associate membership to graduate students, postgraduate fellows, and others who are not fully established in their careers. Some 5700 associate members are part of the full 28,000 membership, Dr. Foti notes. Those members can participate in a series of educational and training workshops, ranging from translational research for basic scientists to career development issues such as finding a good mentor, getting papers published, giving presentations, and starting a laboratory.
Young investigators will benefit from 2 separate grant programs established by the Stand Up To Cancer program, for which AACR is the scientific partner. The $15 million, 3-year grant projects funded by Stand Up to Cancer will include junior investigators, as will the 3-year $750,000 grant projects that will likely support junior faculty.
“We're hitting all the bases,” Dr. Foti notes. “Once you get investigators into the field, you have to help expose them to senior people. While we can't help them directly in their own institutions, we can provide peripheral, morale-boosting support and funding to help get them over the hump.”
Fellow Hopes Funding Will Remain Strong
Like many cancer researchers, Rachel Linger, PhD, became interested in science at a young age—largely because of excellent science teachers. Now a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Colorado Cancer Center in Aurora, she hopes she can continue to receive enough grant funds to support her salary and firmly establish her career. She works in the laboratory of Doug Graham, MD, PhD, who primarily focuses on pediatric leukemia.
“It's an extremely competitive environment right now—there aren't as many tenure-track positions, and it's difficult to obtain funding,” Dr. Linger notes. Still, she is optimistic that she will be able to succeed. She recently received a $100,000 grant from “Joan's Legacy: Uniting Against Lung Cancer” for her research on the role of a protein Axl-receptor tyrosine kinase in lung cancer. These proteins are involved in survival signaling and may help cancer cells stay alive even during chemotherapy, she notes.
“We hope that if we can demonstrate this is true, we can then reduce the levels of these cells, and the cancer will become more sensitive to chemotherapy,” Dr. Linger says. “Our ultimate goal is to develop therapeutic inhibitors to reduce the amount of chemotherapy needed as well as increase long-term survival.”
She applied for several grants and worked on the project until she had enough preliminary data to receive funding. She also received a career development grant from the University of Colorado Cancer Center Lung Cancer Specialized Program in Research Excellence. “My salary is covered for the next 2 years, and I'm hoping I'll be ready to transition to a different position after that,” Dr. Linger adds.
African Americans: COPD–Lung Cancer Risk
A lung cancer risk-prediction assessment designed specifically for African Americans suggests that they have a greater risk for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), according to a report published in Cancer Prevention Research.1
Scientists at The University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston analyzed data from 491 African Americans with lung cancer and 497 African Americans without lung cancer to identify risk factors for the disease. They then compared these risk factors with a previously established risk-prediction model for whites.
African American men with a history of COPD had a greater than 6-fold increased risk of lung cancer, similar to that seen in smokers. This rate is approximately 2-fold higher than the risk typically seen for COPD among whites.
“The one-size-fits-all risk prediction clearly does not work,”says Carol Etzel, PhD, assistant professor of epidemiology at the M. D. Anderson Cancer Center.
As with whites, smoking was a significant risk factor for lung cancer. Current smokers had a greater than 6-fold increased risk of lung cancer, and former smokers had a greater than 3-fold increased risk. This decreased risk was limited to those who had quit smoking more than 10 years before diagnosis; these patients had a 58% decreased risk compared with patients who had quit within the previous 10 years.
Researchers also found that hay fever, previously shown to be protective among whites, also was protective among African Americans. African Americans with hay fever were 44% less likely to develop lung cancer, a rate that had been seen previously among whites.
African American males have a higher risk of lung cancer incidence,at 110.6 per 100,000 compared with 81 per 100,000 among white males. Mortality is also higher among African American men, at 95.8 per 100,000 compared with 72.6 among whites. Lung cancer incidence and mortality rates among African American women and white women are comparable.
Dr.Etzel says the risk-predictionmodel detailed in Cancer Prevention Research is part of an ongoing project to establish risk models among different ethnic groups; a model for Hispanics is currently under development.
“What we hope is that a doctor can use these models to encourage their patients to take steps to prevent lung cancer. Even if they are never-smokers, they can be at risk,” she adds.
1. Etzel CJ, Kachroo S, Liu M, et al. Development and validation of a lung cancer risk predictionmodel for African-Americans. Cancer Prev Res. 2008;1:255-265.
Top Cancer Advances of 2008
New treatment options in hard-to-treat cancers, newdrug approvals, and reductions in cancer recurrence are among the major research advances in cancer treatment, prevention, and screening in 2008, according to a report issued by the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO).1 The report highlighted 12 major advances and 19 other notable advances. Developed by a 21-member editorial board of leading oncologists, the report also makes recommendations to policymakers to increase cancer research funding and to improve access to clinical trials.
Among the key advances noted were:
- 1New Treatment Options for Hard-to-Treat Cancers. Two studies during the past year identified ways to improve outcomes for individuals with both lung and pancreatic cancer. One study found that the targeted therapy cetuximab (Erbitux) improved survival for advanced nonsmall cell lung cancer patients; another found that the chemotherapy drug gemcitabine (Gemzar) improved survival after surgery for patients with early stage pancreatic cancer.
- 2New Cancer Drug Approvals. This year, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved new treatments that will have a significant impact on patient care—the targeted therapy bevacizumab (Avastin) for women with advanced breast cancer that does not express the HER2 protein and bendamustine (Treanda) for people with chronic lymphocytic leukemia, a cancer with few treatment options.
- 3Reducing Cancer Recurrence. For early stage breast cancer, several studies during the past year found that additional years of hormonal therapy (with aromatase inhibitors or tamoxifen) after the standard 5 years of tamoxifen significantly reduced the risk that cancer would return, as did use of a bone-building drug called zoledronic acid (Zometa). For melanoma, a large randomized study found that pegylated interferon helped to stop melanoma from returning in patients whose disease had spread from the original site.
- 4Personalizing Cancer Medicine. Researchers reported a significant advance in personalized medicine for colorectal cancer patients this year. They found that only patients whose tumors have a normal (wild-type) form of the KRAS gene benefit from the addition of cetuximab (Erbitux) to standard chemotherapy.
- 5Reducing Cancer Risk. A large analysis of epidemiologic studies found that oral contraceptives were strongly correlatedwith reduced ovarian cancer risk and may have prevented some 200,000 ovarian cancers and 100,000 deaths to date worldwide. Another epidemiologic review found that the incidence of human papilloma virus (HPV)–related head and neck oral cancers has increased over time, perhaps because of increases in oral sex, suggesting a potential new role for the HPV vaccine, which is currently approved for only cervical cancer.
1. Winer E, Gralow J, Diller L, et al. Clinical cancer advances 2008. J Clin Oncol. 2009;27:812-826.