This September, AICR virtually participated in the 2020 Rally for Medical Research, an annual event supporting a robust increase in government funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Rally for Medical Research unites hundreds of organizations and individuals who believe that a robust, sustained and predictable funding increase is needed to support lifesaving medical research at NIH.
Rally participants made three asks to Congress: 1) provide the NIH with an increase of at least $3 billion for FY 2021, for a total funding level of at least $44.7 billion; 2) exempt NIH from the highly restrictive FY 2021 budget caps to help the agency respond to the COVID-19 health crisis while simultaneously supporting research on other diseases; and 3) provide at least $15.5 billion in emergency supplemental funding for NIH in the next COVID-19 relief package to support research impacted by the pandemic, as well as ongoing research on COVID-19. These asks align with AICR’s policy priority on increasing government funding for cancer research, as the National Cancer Institute (NCI) is one of the many institutes within the NIH.
In order to make a more significant impact, AICR recruited three researchers to speak to members of Congress about how they have been impacted by NIH funding and how their research has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the researchers who participated in the Rally for Medical Research is Dr. Christina Dieli-Conwright, an AICR grantee whose research focuses on the impact of exercise on cancer survivorship. We connected with Dr. Dieli-Conwright following the event for a Q&A.
Q: Why did you want to work in the health and research field? Particularly, what drew you to cancer research?
A: I initially explored veterinary medicine due to my passion for animals. However, my underlying personal interest was rooted in exercise science after many years as a competitive dancer and lover of sports. I was drawn to cancer research as soon as I learned about the positive impact physical activity can have on cancer risk. I knew this would be an opportunity to marry my passion for exercise with my motivation to help others with a chronic condition, such as cancer.
Q: Tell us more about your research interests and any ongoing research projects, both funded by NIH and other entities, like AICR.
A: My research is focused on developing and implementing lifestyle (e.g., exercise, diet) intervention approaches to reduce cancer risk, recurrence and mortality and to improve healthy living for those affected by cancer. A few specific examples of current projects are:
- Examining the effect of exercise on cognitive function in patients receiving chemotherapy (funded by AICR)
- The impact of exercise on adipose tissue inflammation among obese breast cancer survivors (funded by NIH)
- How physical activity can impact metabolic dysregulation among obese Hispanic breast cancer survivors (funded by ACS)
My laboratory is currently planning multiple investigations to study the benefits of exercise in vulnerable and understudied populations including young adults, patients with advanced stage disease, underrepresented minorities and patients with hematologic malignancies.
Q: Why did you choose to participate in this year’s Rally for Medical Research? How are you uniquely positioned to advocate for increases in NIH research?
A: I chose to participate in this year’s rally to advocate for biomedical research on behalf of myself, my peers and the many patients who have been positively affected by our research. I have experienced first-hand the opportunities afforded by NIH funding, most recently the advancement of my career upon receipt of an R01 award.
NIH funding has supported repayment of my student loans and provided me with the opportunity to begin a career in energy balance and cancer research through a career development award. Furthermore, as a first generation college graduate and underrepresented minority, I feel uniquely positioned to advocate for increased funding and for diversity in research training.
Q: One of the asks for the rally was $15.5 billion in emergency supplemental funding included in the next COVID relief package to help restart research impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. How has your research been impacted by the pandemic?
A: My research has been halted due to COVID-19. Funded trials are under revision to accommodate for remote data collection and intervention approaches that were not planned and not budgeted for. In addition, patient accrual and study completion have been greatly impacted for the unforeseeable future, and are compromising research progress.
Q: Why is it important to continue advocating for an increase in funding for the NIH? How would a decrease in funding impact you and your research?
A: It is important to continue advocating for increases in NIH funding to ensure support of cutting-edge cancer research that saves lives every year. This is even more critical during a pandemic as we encounter an onslaught of delayed cancer diagnoses and comorbid conditions for months, and possibly years, to come.
A decrease in funding would prevent the progress of my research and the opportunity to provide training opportunities to graduate students and postdocs within energy balance and cancer research domains. Consequently, this trend will likely deter young scientists from pursuing a career in academic research and thereby diminish the pool of bright young minds to progress science.
Watch Dr. Dieli-Conwright discuss her research funded by AICR: