Advances in cancer therapy often begin in the laboratory, but tight budgets and decreasing availability of federal grants are making it difficult for researchers to find funding for projects that could improve outcomes for cancer patients.
Between 8 and 10 percent of National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant applications get funded, down from 25 to 30 percent in the 1970s and 1980s. The challenge for researchers in this increasingly competitive environment is that only projects with the best preliminary data have a chance to get funded, which is particularly difficult for young scientists trying establish their research programs and apply their skills to helping cancer patients.
Senior scientists are not immune to federal funding challenges either. Those operating labs are in danger of losing talented researchers if they are unable to renew their grants, a more likely scenario than it once was. “Laboratory research requires a sustained effort. When you lay off senior lab personnel you may never recover that momentum,” says Dr. Paul Harari, chair of the Department of Human Oncology at the University of Wisconsin.
In addition, scarce funding can make researchers more cautious in selecting which projects to pursue. “When funding rates are so low, we jeopardize the willingness of scientists to be creative because it’s too risky. They tend to stay in the mainstream in an effort to maintain their funding,” Harari says. “But creativity is a critical part of impactful scientific discovery. You don’t have to look further than our own successes at the University of Wisconsin to find tremendous advances in research that came from serendipity, where scientists felt they had the freedom and latitude to explore new ideas and exercise creativity.”
To overcome these research funding challenges, the Department of Human Oncology has created The Ride, a bicycle fundraiser for cancer research at the University of Wisconsin.
Deric Wheeler, associate professor of human oncology, proposed The Ride as a way to engage the community in an effort to drive translational cancer research—projects that bring discoveries from the lab into the clinic to improve treatments and increase cure rates.
“As I move through my career, working closely with physicians and clinical scientists, I’m always thinking about how to translate our work from the laboratory to the clinic to help people who have cancer,” Wheeler says. “The barrier isn’t typically intellectual or lack of will. It’s frequently a challenge of funding, and hopefully The Ride will help in that mission. What better way to do that than biking? It’s what we do here.”
Wheeler is a basic scientist in a clinical department. “One of the reasons I came to a clinical department rather than a basic science department was to interface with clinicians,” he says. “Working in this department enables me to see the human impact of our work and has helped focus my research. I’m always thinking, ‘What am I doing to help people like my friend, Terry?’”
All the money raised by The Ride will go toward cancer research at the University of Wisconsin, with an emphasis on translational research that features collaborations between scientists and clinicians. “Research is a team sport. We need bright minds communicating together to tackle complex challenges with creativity and innovation,” Harari says. “We are much less likely to make meaningful advances with scientists and clinicians working in isolation.”
The community is part of the team as well. By participating in The Ride community members—cancer patients, survivors, loved ones and friends—will help raise money for innovative and creative research and serve as a powerful reminder to those affected by cancer that they’re not alone.
“The Ride is personal. Cancer patients are inspiring and they challenge and stimulate us to do better for the future,” Harari says. “These real life stories present a very powerful image of why we strive to diminish the burden of cancer.”