Consistent reductions in US federal budget allocations for cancer research that have been implemented since 2003 threaten to undermine recent gains in the fight against the disease, scientists said.
The warning came from about 30,000 prominent US cancer researchers gathered in Chicago this weekend for the 44th annual conference of the American Society of Oncology (ASCO).
"I want to reinforce that today cancer research faces a very, very significant funding crisis," said Friday Doctor Nancy Davidson, a professor of oncology at Johns Hopkins University and current chairwoman of the society.
Scientists said most recent discoveries in genetic research needed to be translated into treatments for patients.
"That will be difficult, even impossible to achieve these goals without increases in cancer research funding," Davidson said.
The budget of the National Institutes of Health has been flat for five years and, adjusted for inflation, that means that it has declined by 500 million dollars since 2003, she warned.
Scientists had to postpone or delay up to 100 of the phase two and phase three trials that are important to establishing new therapies, and the number of patients that were able to participate in clinical trials in the US has declined by 3,000.
Davidson recalled that 30 years ago, options for cancer patients were limited and radical surgery was often the only option available.
Chemotherapy and radiotherapy were often associated with very substantial toxicity, and doctors really did not know how cancer grew and spread.
"Today the situation has changed quite dramatically," Davidson pointed out. "Advances in science and technologies can reduce the burden of cancer."
There are 10 million cancer survivors now in the United States alone compared to three million in the 1970s, the chairwoman said, while the cancer survival ratio has trebled.
Still, more than 1.4 million Americans were expected to develop cancer this year -- nearly 560,000 of them with fatal consequences.
Dr John Niederhuber, director of the National Cancer Institute, cautioned that the flat budget "is having a real impact" on cancer research.
"We cannot, I believe, sustain this -- and have our country continue to look upon as a leader in biomedical research," he warned.
Niederhuber insisted that his institute's goal now was not to lose the next generation of researchers, and the government had to find the resources to keep young researchers in the field.
However, the NCI director did not hold out much hope in the upcoming presidential elections, saying the slate of available candidates was "a disappointment."
According to the World Health Organization, 7.6 million people died of cancer worldwide last year. That means that the disease was responsible for 13 percent of all natural deaths.
On Monday, ASCO will put out advertisements in USA Today and later other media outlets calling for stronger research funding.