State to appeal ruling that slashed health research funding

Wistar Institute researcher Noor Dawany explaining science to kids at a 2012 carnival. A Wistar project that developed a non-invasive blood test for cancer would be "severed" without tobacco settlement funding, she said.
Wistar Institute researcher Noor Dawany explaining science to kids at a 2012 carnival. A Wistar project that developed a non-invasive blood test for cancer would be "severed" without tobacco settlement funding, she said. (WISTAR INSTITUTE)
Posted: March 02, 2014

HARRISBURG - Last fall, the director of the University of Pennsylvania's Abramson Cancer Center briefed the legislative cancer caucus on the center's groundbreaking research on a variety of potentially deadly forms of the disease.

In one case detailed by Chi Dang, doctors with Penn and Children's Hospital of Philadelphia used a novel cell-engineering treatment on a young leukemia patient as part of a clinical trial involving acute forms of leukemia.

That was two years ago. The little girl remains cancer-free.

But a week after his presentation, Dang learned that funding for his project and others across the state are on hold - in many cases, their existence threatened - after a blow dealt by an arbitration panel charged with hearing cases involving the 1998 national tobacco settlement.

On Friday, the commonwealth will make its case to restore the funding before a Philadelphia Common Pleas Court judge.

"The rug was pulled out from under us," Dang said. "They cut us dry, and now I'm out there trying to get donors."

The Abramson Center has for more than a decade received more than $1 million a year as part of what is known as the master tobacco settlement, which Pennsylvania and dozens of other states made with the four major tobacco companies in 1998 to resolve tobacco-related lawsuits.

But the arbitration panel ruled that Pennsylvania had not properly enforced the agreement as it related to nonparticipating tobacco producers. The immediate result was that facilities were forced to cut jobs, let vacant positions go unfilled, and suspend years-long research projects.

The state will see future annual payments drop to $180 million - about 60 percent of the nearly $320 million the state had been getting every year.

"The position of the commonwealth is that the arbitration panel's decision is unsupported by the record in every respect, that it is irrational and must be overturned," said Adrian King, chief of staff for Attorney General Kathleen Kane. "The tobacco settlement funds are of critical importance to key programs in the commonwealth: cancer research, medical care for the poor, and smoking cessation."

Research flexibility

Under the 1998 settlement, 46 states and the District of Columbia were to receive an estimated $206 billion over 25 years based on tobacco sales.

Unlike other states, Pennsylvania mandated that funds be used exclusively for health care.

As a result, hundreds of millions of dollars have been distributed to scores of health-research facilities, including many hospitals in Philadelphia, engaged in long-term research on lung and other cancers, heart disease, HIV/AIDS, and smoking cessation.

The arbitration panel determined that Pennsylvania failed to properly enforce escrow settlement provisions involving "nonparticipating manufacturers" - that it did not properly tax loose-leaf tobacco, used in "roll your own" cigarettes.

In her appeal, Kane argued the state enforced the agreement and that the companies miscalculated the percentage of sales of roll-your-own tobacco.

The Pennsylvania Cancer Coalition filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the institutions it represents that receive the research money through what is known as the CURE program.

The tobacco funding stream has given research centers maximum flexibility, and has been vital to launching projects and sustaining long-term ones, doctors say.

The CURE program gives researchers the chance to innovate while federal grants do not, said Dang, who had teams of researchers lined up for a battery of projects when the funding was pulled.

That start-up funding allowed projects to get off the ground before applying for larger grants that demand more advanced research through the National Institutes of Health, he said.

At the same time, the cut comes as federal funding is drying up, according to the coalition's court brief.

Among the projects threatened is one developed by the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia that has led to a noninvasive blood test for lung cancer.

"It differentiates between actual lung cancer and benign tumors," said Noor Dawany, a staff scientist at Wistar.

Wistar anticipated receiving $1.4 million this year, or 3 percent of the institute's research expenditures, from the fund.

Without additional funding, Dawany said, the project, which is nearing completion, would be "severed."

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