WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Sustained federal research funding is needed to fulfill President Barack Obama's vow to seek "a cure for cancer in our time," a pledge echoing one by President Richard Nixon in 1971, experts said on Wednesday.
Since Nixon launched his "war on cancer" with a surge of research money, major progress has been made against cancer.
Cancer death rates have dropped every year since 1991, cutting the chance of death from cancer in the United States by more than 10 percent for women and nearly 20 percent for men, according to the American Cancer Society.
But cancer remains the No. 2 killer of Americans, with about 560,000 deaths annually, topped only by heart disease.
Federal funding of cancer and other biomedical research has come in fits and starts since the 1990s, and languished through most of the Bush administration.
In his speech to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday, Obama referred to his economic recovery plan and said, "It will launch a new effort to conquer a disease that has touched the life of nearly every American, including me, by seeking a cure for cancer in our time." Both his mother and grandmother died of cancer.
The economic stimulus measure signed by Obama on February 17 included a huge, two-year infusion of about $10 billion for the National Institutes of Health, which funds research, of which about $1.26 billion is expected to go for cancer research.
"What will be more important is a sustained growth in the national investment in cancer research because we can only do so much with a short-term bolus of money," Dr. Richard Schilsky of the University of Chicago, president of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, said in a telephone interview.
"If the money goes away, then a lot of projects will have been started but not many will have been completed," he added.
An overhaul of the U.S. health system to expand access for millions of people to medical care and prevention tools also is needed to conquer cancer, added Daniel Smith, president of the American Cancer Society's Cancer Action Network.
Cancer experts say "a cure for cancer" is a bit of a misnomer, in that there are many types of cancer. Progress in early detection and new drugs and therapies also means that many people who get cancer now, in fact, get cured, they said.
Roughly two-thirds of newly diagnosed cancer patients will be alive and cancer-free five years after diagnosis, and the vast majority are cured, Schilsky said.
Some types such as pancreatic have remained intractable, but major strides have been made against common kinds such as lung, colorectal, prostate and breast cancer.
"Cancer is a heterogeneous collection of diseases. Therefore, it would be difficult to imagine a cure-all for cancer," Tyler Jacks of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, president-elect of the American Association for Cancer Research, said in a telephone interview.
"That said, I agree that with a directed effort and significant investment, we can make a huge impact on our ability to control cancer in the decades ahead," Jacks added.
Funding for the National Cancer Institute, part of the NIH, nearly doubled from 1998 to 2003, but then stalled. NCI funding since 2003 has declined by about 16.5 percent when accounting for inflation. It received $4.8 billion in fiscal year 2008.
In his 1971 State of the Union address, Nixon kicked off his campaign to cure cancer, saying, "The time has come in America when the same kind of concentrated effort that split the atom and took man to the moon should be turned toward conquering this dread disease."
Editing by Peter Cooney