Our First Charge: Fostering the Next Generation of Oncologists and Cancer Researchers

ASCO Board Member Gary H. Lyman, MD, MPH, FASCO, Focuses Philanthropy on Early-Career Research

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Gary H. Lyman, MD, MPH, FASCO

A primary mission of ASCO has always been training, encouraging, and supporting the next generation of oncologists and cancer researchers.

—Gary H. Lyman, MD, MPH, FASCO

Gary H. Lyman, MD, MPH, FASCO, is Co-Director of the Hutchinson Institute for Cancer Outcomes Research, a Full Member of the Divisions of Public Health Sciences and Clinical Research at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, and Professor of Medicine, Public Health, and Pharmacy at the University of Washington. He’s been an ASCO member since 1977, and his membership has been an active one, including service on numerous committees and working groups and culminating in his current term on ASCO’s Board of Directors.

Supporting Young Investigators

Dr. Lyman recalled that when ASCO created the Conquer Cancer Foundation in 1999 to support the broad interests of the Society in research and education, he and others thought it “made a good deal of sense.”

“The Foundation has provided an important focus on what many of us feel is right at the top of ASCO’s charge and role,” he said. “A primary mission of ASCO has always been training, encouraging, and supporting the next generation of oncologists and cancer researchers.”

The Conquer Cancer Foundation Grants & Awards Program fuels a broad spectrum of programs designed to support the next generation of oncologists. They range from awards and fellowships designed to support early-career oncologists in low- and middle-income countries, to awards helping introduce physicians from backgrounds underrepresented in medicine to oncology as a career, to its flagship Young Investigator Award (YIA) and Career Development Award (CDA) grants, which have launched the research careers of hundreds of young oncologists.

 “The Foundation has proven its ability to foster the development and careers of promising young investigators who have received funding and gone on to already outstanding careers,” said Dr. Lyman. “I can’t tell you how many have come up to me and said their first grant or the grant that got them started was a YIA or CDA or both from the Conquer Cancer Foundation.”

Dr. Lyman also has a personal link to the successes enabled by the Grants & Awards Program. His wife, Nicole Kuderer, MD, also of the University of Washington, received a Conquer Cancer Foundation of ASCO Young Investigator Award. “My wife had the opportunity to receive a Young Investigator Award and that helped accelerate her research career and formed the basis for her receiving a K Award,” he said. “I know she valued that support enormously.”

Funding Cutbacks a Real Concern

Dr. Lyman had the opportunity to see the inner workings of the Conquer Cancer Foundation Grants & Awards Program first hand when he served on the Foundation’s Grants Selection Committee. He cited the incredible array of proposals submitted—and the breadth of expertise on the committee to evaluate those proposals—but, above all, what stuck out as the greatest challenge was simply the number of outstanding proposals.

“There are so many! You rank them, you score them, and you try to distinguish degrees of excellence and that can be very challenging and often you just say ‘These should all be funded!’” he said. “Or the ones that don’t quite make the cut because there is not enough money to distribute, you really feel bad because you know that those studies, those projects and young researchers should be supported, but there’s just not enough to
go around.”

The shortage of funding for cancer research continues. Even in years when the Conquer Cancer Foundation is able to award a large number of awards—such as in 2014, when 56 YIAs were awarded—promising work goes unfunded.

“It’s so hard in today’s research environment,” Dr. Lyman continued. “Cutbacks at the NIH and other funding agencies have made it increasingly difficult, not only for young investigators, but even for senior investigators.” According to ASCO, as of 2014, funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is down 23% since 2003 after adjusting for inflation, and the challenges caused by the decrease in available funding weigh the most heavily on early-career researchers who are at a crossroads in their careers.

“You only have so many years relatively early in your career to kind of make it or break it,” said Dr. Lyman. “Over the years, we have lost many very promising, brilliant young investigators who might have gone on to just do outstanding cancer research.”

In the current challenging research environment, Dr. Lyman sees continued investment in grants like the Young Investigator Award and Career Development Award as imperative.

“We just need to keep beating the bushes to find the funds to support more of these awards,” he said. “We need to do all we can to try and fill the gap before we lose a greater number of the next generation of outstanding researchers... It’s never enough, but it has been extraordinarily successful, and I think ASCO and the Foundation can be very proud of what has been accomplished and what will be accomplished in the coming years.” ■

© 2014. American Society of Clinical Oncology. All rights reserved.