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Murphy Touts UConn Health's Work Amid President's Cancer 'Moonshot'

This is a picture of U.S. Senator Chris Murphy visiting with medical researchers and professionals at UConn Health in Farmington, Connecticut.
Office of U.S. Senator Chris Murphy
U.S. Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) visits with medical researchers and professionals at UConn Health in Farmington, Connecticut.

U.S. Senator Chris Murphy visited the University of Connecticut Health Center this week to highlight cancer research and President Obama’s call for a moonshot in the fight against the deadly disease.Murphy also celebrated a $2 billion increase in National Institute of Health medical research grants authorized by Congress for 2016. NIH provided $57 million to UConn Health in 2015, supporting about 1,000 workers. Last year, Connecticut institutions received more $457 million in NIH grant funding for 1,100 projects. The Democrat says the federal government has set aside $32 billion for research grants this year.

“UConn is already a leader in research to discover cures and treatments for cancer,” Murphy said. “I want to make sure that we’re in a position to win a lot of these grants that are going to come out as part of this new moonshot initiative that the president has announced, but also part of the $2 billion increase that we just approved in the Senate for NIH in general.”

“We have researchers who are pioneering the discovery of what makes a normal colon polyp transform into a colon cancer polyp,” explained Dr. Bruce Liang, dean of the UConn School of Medicine. “Some of our researchers are focused on colon cancer prevention because if you can figure out what pathways lead a colon polyp, which is benign, to become a malignant cancer you can interrupt that and then prevent the colon cancer from happening.”

Liang says UConn Health also focuses on bone and breast cancer research. Vice President Joe Biden held the first meeting of the White House Cancer Moonshot Task Force Monday. President Obama plans to ask Congress for $755 million in cancer-research funding as part of his 2017 budget. The American Cancer Society says more than one million people in the U.S. get cancer every year. Meanwhile, death rates decreased roughly 1.5 percent between 2002 and 2011, according to the National Cancer Institute. Murphy is hopeful the president’s call will change the mindset around cancer research.

“The NIH hasn’t been real interested in funding risky research that has a low chance of success, but that’s meant that we haven’t really made the progress in terms of cancer survival or diagnosis rates that we should,” said Murphy.

A member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, Murphy says incremental research has not produced the advances expected when spending billions of dollars on the effort. He says the government has to start challenging researchers to think outside the box and support cutting-edge strategies.

“One area that there’s clearly going to be more focus on is personalized research and medicine,” Murphy said. “There is one researcher at UConn that is taking tumors out of individuals who’ve had an initial cancer diagnosis and then taking that tumor and turning into a vaccine that’s put it back into the individual that is personalized for their cancer that can greatly decrease their likelihood of having a reoccurrence. That kind of personalized research and medicine is expensive, but that’s the kind of moonshot and innovative approach that may actually start to make some progress.”

The White House task force is also calling on the NIH, the Food and Drug Administration, Veterans Affairs and other agencies to work together on fighting cancer. Dr. Liang expects the national effort to produce innovative research.

“We would like to see more funding, which is exactly a very, very small fraction of the federal budget devoted to research,” Liang said. “We don’t want to lose the edge in the world of competitiveness on science and technology development. If you don’t put money into it we’re not going to be the leader in the world.”

Jim is WAMC’s Associate News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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