An Investment That Works

Cancer is part of our past and our future. Looking back, it has been the leading cause of death in North Carolina since 2007. In 2011 alone, more than 18,000 North Carolinians died from this disease. Just as grimly, looking ahead, more than 40 percent of people who now live in North Carolina can expect to be affected by cancer in their lifetimes, resulting in an estimated yearly economic cost to the state of $6.1 billion. And our aging and growing population is anticipated to double the state’s cancer burden in the next 20 years.

GAA President Doug Dibbert ’70The N.C. General Assembly responded to these trends in 2007 by investing $180 million to build the patient-friendly N.C. Cancer Hospital and enacting a statute that initially provided $25 million a year — then $40 million and finally $50 million a year — to establish on a permanent basis the University Cancer Research Fund.

North Carolina has been very well-served by this fund, with Lineberger and the N.C. Cancer Hospital treating patients from all of North Carolina’s 100 counties. This fund is governed by a seven-member cancer research committee, chaired by the chancellor and including the deans of UNC’s schools of medicine, public health and pharmacy along with the director of Carolina’s Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center. (Two additional members serve and are elected by majority vote; they currently are the president of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and the past president of MD Anderson Cancer Center. And in interest of full disclosure, my wife, Debbie, is Lineberger’s director of external affairs.)

The fund’s objectives were spelled out in its annual report for 2012-13, noting its aim “to create a nation-leading cancer research effort and reduce North Carolina’s cancer burden through:

  • “Discovery to better understand the causes and course of cancer;
  • “Innovation to create new and better ways to prevent, diagnose and treat cancer; and by stimulating
  • “Delivery of improved cancer care, screening and prevention across the state.”

So far, more than 140 outstanding cancer researchers have been hired or retained through the University Cancer Research Fund.

Since its inception, the fund’s economic impact has been $968 million. With the fund’s investment, Carolina in 2012 ranked ninth in the level of federal research funds as well as ninth in NIH funding. Without these University Cancer Research Fund-related grants, Carolina that year would have ranked 17th in NIH funding. More recent data shows that in 2013 UNC moved to seventh in the nation in NIH funding.

Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center — North Carolina’s only public university cancer center — is one of 41 comprehensive cancer centers in the nation. It has had a 39 percent increase in total extramural funding, growing to $227.4 million from $163.6 million in 2007. From 2007 to 2012, Carolina’s National Cancer Institute funding increased 32 percent (while UNC’s public peers saw only a 2.9 percent increase and its private peers experienced a 4.9 percent decline). Over that same time, Carolina’s NIH funding increased 17.8 percent (in contrast to UNC’s public peers experiencing a 3.4 percent increase and its private peers seeing a 1.4 percent decline).

The fund’s report further notes that “UCRF’s focus on innovation has led to an increase in inventions, licenses and spinoff companies. Also from the annual report:

  • “Since 2007, 10 startup companies whose progress is directly attributable to UCRF-funded research have been launched, creating private-sector jobs.
  • “In the five years before UCRF was established, UNC Lineberger members reported 46 inventions and made 18 licensing agreements. In FY 2011-12 alone, UCRF-assisted faculty reported 58 inventions and 25 licenses.”

But as we know, cancer is about much more than numbers — it is about lives. Despite the fund’s remarkable success, last year the N.C. General Assembly cut the fund’s annual allotment by $8 million, and it removed the statutory language that made the funding permanent. An effort will be made in the General Assembly’s upcoming short session to bring the funding back to the full $50 million a year as well as to restore language making the University Cancer Research Fund permanent.

The GAA’s Tar Heel Network encourages all readers to contact state senators and representatives and urge them to support full funding for the University Cancer Research Fund and to restore its permanent status.

When the General Assembly established the fund in 2007, it made a nation-leading investment. North Carolina enjoys a competitive advantage over other states in attracting and retaining leading-edge faculty from around the world. It is important to North Carolina that this advantage not be forfeited by an ill-advised cut in state funding. Nowhere else are North Carolinians enjoying a greater return on their investment.

Yours at Carolina,

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Douglas S. Dibbert ’70

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