A small change to the tax code will send more money to research on childhood cancer

John Cunningham, MD, talks to reporter John Cunningham, MD, left, talks with a reporter from the Springfield ABC affiliate about the Childhood Cancer Research Fund.

Update: This feature originally appeared in May 2012. In August 2012, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn signed into law SB3320, which included the Childhood Cancer Research Fund check box described in the story below.

At 8:30 p.m. on a Wednesday night, after seeing patients all day, John Cunningham, MD, left the University of Chicago Medicine campus to drive 200 miles to Springfield. He was on a mission: to be ready first thing in the morning to testify before the House Revenue and Finance Committee for a small change to the state tax code that could make a big impact on childhood cancer research.

"The scientists in Illinois who focus on pediatric cancers know that we can develop better and smarter therapies, if we have the appropriate resources," Cunningham told the legislators in their early-morning session. He directs the largest pediatric cancer research program in the state.

The proposal before the Committee was for a small addition to state income tax forms. The change would allow people to donate part of their tax return money to a new Childhood Cancer Research Fund. Research institutions like the University of Chicago could apply every year for research money from this fund. According the bill, the fund would advance the "early detection, prevention, cure, screening, and treatment of childhood cancer, and may include clinical trials."

"We need better and smarter therapies," Cunningham said. He directs the Center for Childhood Cancer and Blood Diseases at the University of Chicago, where he and other researchers treat many children with cancer every year. They also investigate new therapies and run clinical trials of developing drugs and treatments.

The advances of the past 60 years in cancer research have brought the cure rate for children up to 70%. But their treatments come at a great cost.

"Many young cancer survivors still bear the stigmata of chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and the many other treatments that we currently use against cancer." Filling young bodies with cytotoxics to cure cancer can have long-term side effects, including infertility, heart failure, or secondary cancers. The University of Chicago program is working on approaches to reduce these unwanted long-term toxicities.

 John Cunningham, MD, right, shakes hands with Illinois Governor Pat Quinn.

Cunningham reminded the group of Illinois' rich heritage of scientific breakthroughs in cancer research. "This was the state where the molecular basis of cancer was discovered, through the work of Janet Rowley. Our institution lead the research that resulted in successful bone marrow transplants," he said.

He also highlighted more recent advances made by his colleagues throughout Illinois. "Stewart Goldman's work at Children's Memorial Hospital is pushing the frontiers for using experimental drugs for brain tumors," he said. The work of the University of Chicago scientists has led to new treatment protocols for neuroblastoma and breakthroughs in stem cell transplant.

Children aren't the only beneficiaries of research on childhood cancers. Cunningham said. "There is a new protocol for treating acute lymphoblastic leukemia in adults, based on our research in children at the University of Chicago. We are hopeful that it will improve the cure rate for the disease in all affected individuals."

The physician was joined at the hearing by four-year-old Atia Lutarewych, who was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia 3 years ago. Cunningham and the pediatric cancer team at Comer Children's Hospital helped induce a remission of Atia's leukemia.

Atia's mother Laura Lutarewych, also a cancer survivor, told the state representatives about her family's experiences having a child with cancer. She said that watching her daughter endure toxic treatments often made her wish they could swap places, so that she could take away her child's suffering.

"Ironically, if a parent could swap places with their child, they would have access to more resources and more extensively funded research," Laura Lutarewych said. With only 4% of the national cancer research budget going to childhood cancers, she argued, our country has wrongfully devalued the lives of children.

Taxpayers can donate to various charities through the income tax checkoff program in Illinois, like military family relief, child abuse prevention, and assistance to the homeless. A dozen organizations shared about $1.3 million in 2010. Organizations that don't pull in $100,000 are bumped off the list.

The proposal to add the Childhood Cancer Research Fund to the list of income tax checkoffs was met with great enthusiasm by the Revenue and Finance Committee. The chair recommended that it be added to the tax code for the next year.