Why Innovative Research

Cancer is the #1 cause of disease-related death in children.

  • More children die from cancer than from asthma, cystic fibrosis, diabetes, and AIDS combined.[1]
  • In the US, more than 15,000 children and adolescents are diagnosed with cancer each year. That’s the equivalent of three average-size classrooms every school day.
  • Childhood cancer occurs regularly, randomly and spares no ethnic group, socioeconomic class, or geographic region.
  • The causes of pediatric cancers are largely unknown and at present, childhood cancer cannot be prevented.

Despite advances, most pediatric cancer treatments remain highly toxic and have not changed in decades.

  • Most of the drugs used today were approved 20 to 30 years ago. The strategies of the past, such as “intensification” giving higher risk patients higher doses of the same chemo -- no longer offer improvements in survival. [1]
  • As a result of research, we have achieved relatively high survival rates for certain pediatric cancers, such as acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL). But other “high risk” cancers such as acute myeloid leukemia (AML) continue to have a poor prognosis. Fewer than half of pediatric AML patients survive.[2]
  • Conventional chemotherapy targets not just cancer cells but all rapidly growing cells, and is particularly harmful for children because it damages healthy cells in the bone, brain, and other organs that are growing fast as part of normal development.
  • As many as two-thirds of childhood cancer survivors suffer from serious life-long health problems, such as reduced heart function, respiratory damage, cognitive impairment, infertility, or disabilities in hearing or sight. [3]
  • Some of the drugs used to treat cancer are so toxic they cause a second, more lethal cancer to occur.

The major funding mechanisms for cancer research promote “incrementalism” rather than innovation.

  • The major source of cancer research funding is the National Cancer Institute, but only a small fraction of grant applications get funded (16% in 2009[4]) and “with too little money to finance most proposals, they are timid about taking chances on ones that might not succeed.”[5]
  • As a result, scientists have an incentive to play it safe and work on small improvements to established therapies rather than experimenting with game-changing ideas. In the words of the chief medical officer at the American Cancer Society, “The problem in science is that the way you get ahead is by staying within narrow parameters and doing what other people are doing…No one wants to fund wild new ideas.”[5]
  • Funding agencies want to see data that demonstrates a concept will work-before funding the research-in a paradox that favors commonplace thinking over genuine novelty. Against hurdles this high, many out-of-the-box ideas are simply not submitted.[6]
  • Struggling to find financing, researchers with novel ideas must spend more and more time writing grants, and less and less in the lab pursuing cures. At best, novel science is delayed and at worst, promising research that could yield “game-changing” results is not conducted at all.

Pediatric research in particular is consistently shortchanged.

  • Out of the National Cancer Institute’s $4.8 billion dollar budget in 2010, only $173 million, or just over 3%, is allocated for grants that have anything to do with pediatric cancer.
  • Childhood cancer research gets only about 3% of the money raised by the American Cancer Society.
  • Pediatric cancer research is not only grossly under-funded by the government, it is also largely ignored by drug companies. Pharmaceutical companies fund over 50% of adult cancer research but due to economics and risk factors, virtually nothing for kids.

We live in an age of unprecedented technology and scientific promise. Now is the time to harness these advances in the fight against pediatric cancer.

According to a publication by the National Academy of Sciences, Making Better Drugs for Children with Cancer, “If the discovery and development of new agents for childhood cancers were to capitalize on today’s science-which in large measure it does not-there is every reason to believe that cure rates could be improved for all pediatric cancers, including those for which current long-term survival is very low…”

The Jake Wetchler Foundation’s goal is to support scientists who can bring the brightest ideas and game-changing technologies to pediatric cancer research.

[ 1 ] Making Better Drugs for Children with Cancer, National Academy of Science 2005

[ 2 ] Ries LAG, Smith MA, Gurney JG, Linet M, Tamra T, Young JL, Bunin GR (eds). Cancer Incidence and Survival among Children and Adolescents: United States SEER Program 1975-1995, National Cancer Institute, SEER Program. NIH Pub. No. 99-4649. Bethesda, MD, 1999.

[ 3 ] Maria Hewitt, Susan L. Weiner, and Joseph V. Simone, Editors, Childhood Cancer Survivorship: Improving Care and Quality of Life, National Research Council 2003

[ 4 ] NIH Paylines and Success Rates, http://www.einstein.yu.edu/ogs/NIHInfo/paylines.htm

[ 5 ] Forty Years’ War: Grant System Leads Cancer Researchers to Play It Safe, NY Times, June 27, 2009

[ 6 ]  Investing in Early-Career Scientists and High-Risk, High-Reward Research, American Academy of Arts & Sciences 2008