What’s Caterpillar got to do with it?

The role of the private sector in cancer research

Stephen Doster
Published: February, 2007

Cohort studies are important research investments, says Harvard epidemiologist Walter Willett, M.D., MPH, Dr.P.H.

“They’re necessarily long-term investments, too, and as such, they are particularly vulnerable to cutbacks in research funding,” he says.

“If you have a project in the lab and it goes a year without funding, you can just start up again,” Willett says. “But when you have dozens of people employed, and you have to maintain active intervention with your participants, you can’t just start and stop without very serious damage.”

That’s a major concern, considering the recent drop in federal funding for medical research, adds William Blot, Ph.D., principal investigator of the Southern Community Cohort Study.

“The percentage of grant applications that are funded has been cut in half,” Blot says. “It used to be that the top 20 percent of grant applications were funded. Last year it was only the top 11 percent, and this year the National Cancer Institute’s budget has already been cut by $40 million.”

As a result, the private sector is becoming an increasingly important source of support.

In 2003, for example, Caterpillar Inc. pledged $1 million to the Southern Community Cohort Study. The Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation is another major supporter.

Kent Adams, president of Caterpillar Financial Services Corp., says Caterpillar officials were impressed with the scope of the project.

“As we investigated over time,” he says, “it became clear that the people behind the Southern Community Cohort Study really had an extraordinary vision of what this work could do. We feel that the study and our participation is an endeavor to ensure that the burden of cancer is reduced for everybody regardless of race or circumstance.”

Wendy Mason, director of project management for the Komen Foundation, said the foundation is supporting the cohort study because of its potential to reduce breast cancer disparities.

“Ultimately, … projects (like this) will shed light on factors that influence breast cancer risk, which we hope will lead to a better understanding of the differences in mortality between Caucasian and African-American women,” Mason says.

In corporate America, Adams says, “there is a trend towards a greater emphasis on philanthropy as a demonstration of overall social responsibility.”

“Non-profits (also) are working really hard to raise dollars that they can contribute to medical research,” Mason adds, “because it’s something that affects all of us.”

View Related Article: The science of large numbers: Cohort studies shed light on cancer