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Local researchers say NIH funding cuts would ‘devastate’ battle against cancer

SEATTLE — About 600,000 people die every year from cancer. In fact, it’s the leading cause of death in Washington state.

Seattle is emerging as an epicenter for a cancer cure but that could be in jeopardy with the Trump administration’s proposal to slash funding for the National Institutes of Health by 20%.

When cancer gripped Trisha Ready, “I didn`t know I was sick,” Ready said.

Not only did she have breast cancer, it was stage 4, the most advanced.

“In my liver, my lymph nodes, in my bones,” Ready said.

As much as that terrified her, Trisha`s will to survive was stronger.

“It’s like your whole body is saying yes, I want to live,” Ready said.

She fought off the disease with her partner by her side. But when you`ve had cancer once, there is always a chance it can come back.

“I can’t tell you how important hope is in this process,” Ready said.

That hope comes in the form of a series of vaccines administered by Dr. Lupe Salazar and her team of researchers at UW Medicine.

“The whole goal of a vaccine is to prevent a disease from the get go,” Salazar said.

A vaccine that prevents cancer may be far into the future but Salazar said that they are making progress on a vaccine right now aimed at stopping relapses.
“Meaning patients live longer without evidence of disease coming back,” Salazar said.

Patients like Trisha, but her trials could disappear if NIH loses funding.

“It’s going to be a big step back for cancer research,” Salazar said.

Researchers say the Trump administration's proposal to slash NIH funding by almost $2 billion over two years means a 20% cut and a huge setback for not only cancer but other diseases.

“Muscular sclerosis, Alzheimer`s, a lot of that research and development that`s come from that in treatments has been from National Institutes of Health,” Salazar said.

UW Medicine has more at stake than most institutions. Last year it received the second largest NIH funding after Harvard, reeling in $638 million for all types of medical research.

“It’s not just cutting the research, it`s also eliminating jobs,” Salazar said.

The White House says NIH is plagued by unnecessary expenses and waste but Gary Gilliland, president and director at Seattle's Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, disagrees. Gilliland says about half of the center’s entire budget comes from NIH. That money is helping to harness the power of the immune system to kill off cancers.

“We are curing more than we ever have and we have the potential to cure all cancers,” Gilliland said.

The center says its goal of finding the ultimate cure for cancer in the next decade is in jeopardy if Congress goes along with the President Donald Trump's proposed cuts.

But what about private donations, could that help bridge the gap?

“If it does go through, that will be a compelling rationale for our philanthropist,” Gilliland said.

Amazon founder and philanthropist Jeff Bezos and his family recently donated $35 million to Fred Hutch.

“I can’t thank them enough for their generosity; they are doing the right things for the right reasons,” Gilliland said.

It`s the largest donation Fred Hutch has ever received in its 41-year history but Gilliland says government research funding remains essential.
UW Medicine agrees. They say private donations can be a lifeline but just not enough to go around.

“This is the breakthrough time for cancer and we are going to cut back funding? That doesn`t make sense for me at all,” Ready said.

The White House is expected to get a lot of pushback from both the Democrats and the Republicans in Congress, which is expected to make a decision later this year.