The institute would then have to develop a scientific framework to guide research on each of the cancers. At the agency’s discretion, the program could be expanded to other recalcitrant cancers — defined as those cancers with five-year survival rates under 50 percent.
Coburn says that despite the good intentions of supporters, the measure is unnecessary and could end up hurting efforts to combat cancer. In a Sept. 17 letter, he asked NIH Director Francis S. Collins for comment on the legislation and emphasized the interdisciplinary approach of current medical research.
“Every time Congress passes legislation directing NIH in these endeavors, we further restrict the agency’s freedom to respond to groundbreaking discoveries and to allocate resources as the science requires,” Coburn wrote.
In a Nov. 16 response, Collins noted that his agency is not allowed to take a position on the measure, but he made several comments that seemed to back up Coburn’s concerns. Collins said the Health and Human Services Department and the NIH already have the authority to set up working groups and research plans. And Collins maintained that “basic research that may lack any overt connection to specific diseases is the foundation for disease-specific translational and clinical research, and it must be preserved to ensure the discoveries that later drive applied work on individual diseases.”
“In other words, if Congress directs the NIH to study specific diseases without flexibility, it can limit our ability to follow the best leads in science and to pursue discoveries that move an entire research field forward in a way that produces maximum benefit to the public,” Collins said.