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Commemorating the National Cancer Act, 50 Years Later

December 23, 2021
Old Time Scientist

December 23rd marks the 50th anniversary of the signing of the National Cancer Act. This important law significantly increased funding for cancer research, treatment, and education, and led to the development of many new therapies that continue to benefit patients today.

The National Cancer Act of 1971 was signed into law by President Richard Nixon 50 years ago today, “to carry out the national effort against cancer.” At the time, cancer was the second leading cause of death in the U.S., yet government funding had been steadily decreasing for several years. Convinced that something had to be done, Congress passed the National Cancer Act (NCA) in 1971, with expectations to cure the major forms of cancer within 5 years. Soon, government, academic, and industry researchers came to understand that cancer is a highly complex and heterogeneous disease. Groundbreaking strategies and different approaches would be required to solve the most complex problems in cancer research. Today, as we look back on the last 5 decades of progress since its enactment, the NCA has increased our knowledge of how cancer cells grow, and brought upon a golden age of cancer prevention and treatment.

The main goal of the NCA was to expand the authority of the National Cancer Institute (NCI) by increasing its funding and responsibilities. With this influx of money and authority, the NCI initially focused on gaining a better understanding of the biological processes that cause cancer. NCI worked to create a network of facilities, physicians, and researchers dedicated to expanding cancer awareness and treatment. Development of new institutes was a main focus, and today the number of cancer centers has increased from 4 to 71. A new database was developed to share information between these institutes and local physicians, increasing communication and education. Oncology became a more desirable field for young doctors and nurses, and the increase in funding allowed these great minds to fully pursue cancer research. Along with development of more advanced medical technology, and an increased emphasis on clinical trials, breakthroughs across nearly all types of cancer were achieved. For the first time in history, millions of Americans had access to cancer treatment and education.

Over the last 20 years, nearly 100 billion dollars has been allocated from the federal government to the NCI, and it is currently the preeminent national institute leading the way in cancer research. Notably, in 2016, the NCI formed the Cancer Moonshot Blue Ribbon Panel, a task force of experts charged with creating a national strategic plan for transforming cancer research and care in the 21st century. They outlined 10 recommendations that built upon many of the achievements of the NCA, including the identification of important areas of scientific opportunity. Progress has been swift, with over 240 projects funded in only 4 years. Today, the NCI continues to be on the forefront of innovation through the ongoing MATCH clinical study, where specific cancer-causing genes are investigated. The DNA of cancer patients is sequenced as part of the program, with the hope of identifying specific mutations that can be targeted by precision treatments. MATCH has many different arms that tackle most major types of cancer, and has been pioneering in its design to evaluate patients with different tumor types.

The NCA also improved the care of other diseases, and has had a long-lasting impact beyond cancer. The boost in funding for the NCI also saw an increase of funding of the National Institute of Health, as according to Dr. Emil Frei, “the best way to get a raise is to have your neighbor get a raise.” Additionally, some drugs initially used for cancer treatment were found to be effective in treating other conditions such as sickle cell disease, arthritis, and heart disease. The development of AZT, one of the first HIV medications, is also partially attributed to the NCA, as research into leukemia uncovered vital knowledge of our immune system. As a whole, the NCA is one of the most important pieces of healthcare policy and has improved the lives of potentially billions of people worldwide.

PCF would like to offer its congratulations for this momentous achievement, and provide its utmost appreciation to the many scientists and medical researchers who are part of the NCI. Since its founding in 1993, PCF and the NCI have worked together, including recently on their combined Research on Prostate Cancer in Men with African Ancestry (RESPOND) study. On this 50th anniversary of the National Cancer Act, PCF remains committed to partnering with the NCI to shape the future of cancer care and collaborating to deliver cutting-edge advances to patients. Read more on the National Cancer Act and its impacts here.