publication date: Mar. 5, 2015

Highlights of the Varmus Years

NCI to Spend $70 Million on Precision Oncology In Presidential Initiative, Even if Congress Doesn’t Appropriate New Funds, Varmus Says

NCI will implement President Barack Obama’s directive to ramp up the initiative in precision medicine, even if Congress doesn’t appropriate specific funds for this purpose, Institute Director Harold Varmus told members of the National Cancer Advisory Board Feb. 12.

The White House budget proposal for fiscal 2016 includes $200 million for NIH to spend on the Precision Medicine Initiative. On top of that, the proposal includes a 3.2 percent overall budget increase.

For NCI, this would mean a $70 million boost for precision medicine in oncology—some on work that’s already underway, Varmus said.

Top NCI Officials Pledge No Further Consolidation of Clinical Trials System

Top NCI officials made an unusual assurance that the reorganization of clinical trials cooperative groups isn’t a “prelude to reducing the commitment of the NCI to clinical trials-based research.”

The document, published as a letter to the editor of the Journal of Clinical Oncology on Dec. 1, follows up on a meeting Sept. 23, where group chairs and directors of statistical centers asked NCI to assure them that no new cuts are in the works.

JCO is published by the American Society of Clinical Oncology, a professional society that has issued strong expressions of concern about several aspects of consolidation of clinical trials cooperative groups into the National Clinical Trials Network, stating at one point that the changes have placed publicly funded clinical research in jeopardy (The Cancer Letter, June 6).

NCI Didn’t Publish Two Bypass Budgets as Sequestration Set In and Funds Tightened

What’s the NCI director’s professional judgment of opportunities in cancer research at a time of shrinking budgets, sequestration and conclusion of the windfall of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act?

Under ordinary circumstances, this question wouldn’t have required a mind reader. The NCI director has an authority no other government executive enjoys: every year, he submits a summary of scientific opportunities directly to the White House, bypassing review by the NIH director and officials at the place ominously called “downtown,” the brutalist-style HHS headquarters at the base of Capitol Hill.

This privilege, created by the National Cancer Act of 1971, has been a part of the political landscape since 1974.

Group Chairs Seek Role in Running NCTN

Is the new National Clinical Trials Network set up for success or heading for failure?

The National Cancer Advisory Board Sept. 9 attempted to review the early signals coming from the institute’s revamped clinical trials system to determine whether it could use early tweaks.

The institute’s new network, configured to conduct new-generation “smart” trials of targeted agents, creates new mandates and capabilities, but—overall—it provides no new money to the clinical trials system.

NCI to Implement More Transparent Formula For Calculating Cancer Center Support Grants

NCI took another step toward adopting a new formula for determining the size of cancer center support grants, with the National Cancer Advisory Board accepting a report from a working group that has been working on the problem since the fall of 2012.

The schema proposed by the working group was accepted by the advisory board at its meeting June 23. It recommends broad organizing principles rather than specific numbers.

It’s now up to NCI officials to put together the funding formula and make plans for implementation.

NCI-Funded Clinical Research In Jeopardy, Society Focuses on Value of NCTN Groups

CHICAGO—The consequences of diminishing federal support for cancer research can be measured in the abstracts presented at the 50th annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology that concluded earlier this week.

To illustrate the impact of this drought, ASCO developed a graphic label to identify abstracts stemming from studies that had received U.S. federal funds.

Altogether, 169 abstracts were identified in this manner at the annual meeting. By way of comparison, 575 studies received federal funding in 2008.

Over $20 Million Carved Out From Statistical, Operations Centers

The budgets of operations and statistical centers of adult clinical trials groups were cut by about $20.4 million, group chairs say.

The cuts make it difficult for the groups to continue to support ongoing trials and raise questions about the prospects for starting a new generation of trials.

NCI officials say that, overall, the budget for the groups is staying flat, in part because some of the money is being channeled into 30 sites that received the Lead Academic Participating Site designation.

Varmus Pledges No Funding Gap for NCORP, Blames Snafu on “Unclear Communication”

Following an explosion of criticism, NCI said funding for community oncology clinics would not be interrupted.

In “an open letter to the cancer community” April 10, NCI Director Harold Varmus assured researchers that funding for the NCI Community Clinical Oncology Program sites would continue as it morphs into the NCI Community Oncology Research Program.

“While this was always our intention, this has not been clearly communicated,” Varmus wrote.

Group Chairs: Research in “Crisis”

ASCO Says NCTN Budgets Cut by 40 Percent, Warns of “Dangerous Disruption of Cancer Care”

Simultaneously, a statement by the president of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, Clifford Hudis, amplified the concerns of the group chairs, and pointed to a separate problem in NCI’s transition to the new structure of clinical research: a three-month gap in funding for community oncology clinics engaged in institute-funded research.

Open criticism of NCI on the part of the institute grantees and ASCO has not been seen in two decades. No such outcry against NCI has been observed since at least 1994, when NCI Director Samuel Broder fired Bernard Fisher from his job as chairman of the National Surgical Adjuvant Breast and Bowel Project (The Cancer Letter, May 13, 1994).

NCI Rethinks Cancer Center Grants 

NIH to Review Intramural Program

NCI’s Intramural Spending is 17 Percent, Higher than 11.1 Percent NIH-Wide Level 

Groups Have No Budgets As NCTN Begins Work March 1 

Congress Mandates NIH Cut PR Costs, Coordinate Spending on Communications 

NIH Spent $181.3 Million on PR Last Year; House Probe Prompts Analysis of Spending 
As Sequestration Hits: Varmus on Living in “Pretty Awful Times” 
NCI Spent $381.2 Million on PR from 2006 to 2012, Vastly Outspending Other NIH, FDA Units
NCI Ends Brash Foray Into the News Business—Emails Tell the Story of the NCI Cancer Bulletin 
Help Wanted: Varmus Irked by Having to Fill Jobs With Salaries NCI Can’t Afford to Pay
NCI Pulls Back Curtain on “Zone of Uncertainty” — Funding Patterns Released with Little Comment
Varmus to NCAB: Budgetary “Haircuts” No Longer Sufficient to Cope With Fiscal Pressure
A Year at NCI: Harold Varmus Reflects on Provocative Questions, the Duke Scandal, Financial Disaster and Grant Review
Part one of a two-part interview with NCI Director Harold Varmus
Part II of Q&A With NCI Director Harold Varmus
Varmus to cut five percent from cancer centers as NCI adjusts to “financial disaster”
Scrutiny of caBIG Exposes Conflicts, Bonanza for Contractors
How NCI’s plans for software giveaway sank in scientific and legal disputes (part two in a series about NCI’s bioinformatics venture caBIG).
Varmus: NCI Faces “Budgetary Disaster;” Flat Funds, Cuts Loom For Most Programs
Obama Plan Would Double Cancer Funding, Increase Clinical Trial Enrollment To 10%

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