October 5, 2013 / 8:35 PM / 6 years ago

Shutdown hits patients' hopes for federally funded cancer drug trials

Oct 5 (Reuters) - The U.S. government shutdown is dashing the hopes of critically ill Americans like 30-year-old Michelle Langbehn after federally funded clinical trials of potentially life-saving drugs were closed this week.

Langbehn, mother of an 18-month-old daughter in Auburn, California, was being evaluated Monday for a clinical trial of a new cancer-fighting drug that holds the potential of stopping the spread of her rare sarcoma, which no longer responds well to traditional treatments.

After the shutdown kicked in Tuesday, key staff at the National Institutes of Health were furloughed, halting trials and leaving Langbehn in limbo.

“I refuse to let my daughter grow up without a mom, and I want to be here. Because of something as frustrating as the government not being able to make a decision, I’m not able to get on the trial. That makes me extremely angry,” Langbehn told Reuters.

The standoff between Republicans and the White House forced most government offices to close on Tuesday at the start of the new funding year. Republicans are insisting a government spending bill must carry a measure to rollback President Barack Obama’s landmark healthcare reform law enacted in 2010. Obama is adamant that he will not accept that condition.

Representative William Keating, Jr., a Massachusetts Democrat, called the situation “despicable” and “disgraceful.”

“This is one of the most drastic effects of the shutdown. A lot of these people don’t have a big time frame. Every day is important to them,” Keating said.

On Friday, Langbehn launched a change.org petition addressed to both houses of Congress calling for an end to the shutdown.

“This is not just about the debt ceiling or national parks. For me, the shutdown means that Congress is denying me potentially life-saving treatment. I speak for everyone battling cancer when I say we don’t have time to wait,” Langbehn wrote in the petition which had more than 1,350 signatures by Saturday afternoon.

The petition, “Help me fight cancer and stop the shutdown,” states that 200 people, including children, begin clinical trials each week under normal circumstances. The NIH spokesman did not return Reuters’ calls for comment.

Keating persuaded the NIH on Friday to bring some employees back to work immediately to open clinical trials that were ready to go before the shutdown but for a final NIH review.

He acted after a constituent, Leo Finn, a 48-year-old father of three from Weymouth, found out his cancer drug trial was put on hold.

“He was just days away from getting the treatment when he got the phone call,” Keating said.

Keating said Finn’s trial and many others around the country can now go forward. But thousands of other people like Langbehn whose applications were pending when the shutdown began remain out of luck.

“The sad thing is, as we speak, there is a majority of members of the House of Representatives that would support opening government. It’s already been voted that way in the Senate. We’re being denied a chance to vote on that issue,” Keating said.

Democratic leaders in the Republican-controlled House said on Friday they were working on a maneuver that, if successful, would force a vote on legislation to fully reopen the government. Such a move could take a week or so to clear procedural hurdles in the chamber.

Langbehn hopes something will be done quickly.

“This trial is as close to a magic bullet as we have. This might just be the miracle I’m looking for,” Langbehn said. (Editing by David Adams and Jackie Frank)

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