A never-ending activity for our University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute (UPCI) researchers is submitting applications for grants to support the costs of their research–grants to the National Institutes of Health, Department of Defense, American Cancer Society and so many more organizations. Grant writing forces the investigator to spend long hours to summarize previous work; articulate the hypothesis, goals and significance of the proposed work; and demonstrate how he or she has assembled a productive team who will be able to achieve the goals. Such grant applications are generally then subjected to a review by a group of peers who score each grant application according to predefined criteria. In the scoring system for the National Institutes of Health, for example, grants end up with scores that rank from one (exceptional) to nine (poor). Scores from multiple grants are then aggregated and analyzed to assign a percentile such that the very top-scored grants are assigned a 1 percent (the top grant in 100) while an average grant will land at the 50th percentile (half the grants scored better and half the grants scored worse) and so forth to the poorest scores. The likelihood that a grant will receive funding is highly dependent on its percentile – the lower the percentile, the higher the likelihood of funding.
So how are we at UPCI doing in this competitive and arduous process? In fiscal year 2011, the most recent year for which statistics are available, our investigators received more than $48 million from the National Cancer Institute alone. Among our many successful investigators this column highlights some recent members of the “1 percent” club, investigators whose proposal was judged by their peers as among the most innovative, significant and feasible, leading it to receive a score that ranked it in the top “1 percent.” Among them is Shivendra Singh, Ph.D., professor of Pharmacology and Chemical Biology and associate director of Basic Science at UPCI, whose top ranked grant is about the use of dietary constituents to prevent cancer in preclinical models of prostate cancer with the hope that these findings can be translated into early phase clinical trials. Another “1 percent” scientist is Walter Storkus, Ph.D., professor of Dermatology and Immunology, whose work focuses on combinatorial immunotherapy for melanoma. Lin Zhang, Ph.D., associate professor of Pharmacology and Chemical Biology, also received the top 1 percent ranking for his proposal on the effects of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory agents in colon cancer prevention as did Thomas Kensler, Ph.D., professor of Pharmacology and Chemical Biology, for his grant application on the role of Nrf2 in cancer chemoprevention. Another member of this elite club is Patrick Moore, M.D., Ph.D., professor of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics, whose grant will advance our knowledge about biomarkers for the Merkel cell virus, one of the seven viruses known to cause cancer in humans (and a virus that Dr. Moore co-discovered with his colleague, Yuan Chang, M.D.) Dr. Moore holds the distinction of having two grants score at 1 percent in the last several years! Though their areas of study are quite different, all five of these investigators share a strong commitment to scientific excellence and a passion for unraveling the problem of cancer.
Though we celebrate these five individuals and their teams, we also recognize there may not be much difference between a grant that scores at the 1 percent and another one that falls at 5 percent or maybe even one at 10 percent or 15 percent. Sheer luck and the arbitrariness of the scoring system may be all that differentiates grants that fall into those three groups. No matter the score, all are examples of outstanding scientific projects that absolutely need to be done. Yet today's funding climate is such that a difference of a percent or two in scoring can mean the difference between success or failure in the grant funding competition. The National Institutes of Health budget has remained essentially flat for much of the 2000s; indeed, because of inflation, the purchasing power of the NIH budget has decreased by nearly 20 percent. And the threat is even greater as we confront the possibility of further federal budget cuts as part of the sequestration.
Sadly these challenges come at a time of great promise in cancer research and care. Just a few days ago, the announcement that cancer mortality has continued to decrease by about 1 percent per year was welcome news to all of us. It is coupled, of course, with the realization that we still have much to do. Thus we in cancer research are faced with the paradox of constrained resources at a time of ever greater promise for our ability to develop and practice evidence-based “precision” or “personalized” medicine – care that is defined by better understanding of the unique attributes of each cancer and each host. This is not the time to reduce research spending, in fact just the opposite is true. The opportunity to improve human health and support a vibrant part of our economy – biomedical research – along the way should not be squandered. Our patients and our citizens depend on all of us to make these discoveries and convert them into improved human health.