Fighting lung cancer Valley doctor to help direct research funds.
A Woodland Hills man will serve on a first-of-its kind panel to decide how $20million in federal funds will be spent on lung cancer research.
Dr. Michael Weitz, an emergency physician for Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, will leave for Washington D.C. today to join the select panel, which will review hundreds of research proposals competing for the valuable funding.
Winning research teams will receive the funds, which have been appropriated to the Department of Defense by Congress since 1992 to benefit the public. Funding has gone to research breast cancer, autism, and Gulf War Illness, among others.
But 2009 was the first time lung cancer was included, a victory for advocates who have said the illness has been shortchanged and stigmatized for decades, because of its association with smoking.
Weitz, a nonsmoker, was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2006.
"My major role on this panel is to look at the impact on lung cancer patients, lung cancer survivors and lung cancer communities," Weitz said. "Even though I'm a physician, I have to wear the hat of the lung cancer patient."
The Department of Defense created the Lung Cancer Research Program to find improved ways to diagnose the disease early and find better treatment.
"Lung cancer is the most lethal of all cancers, taking more lives each year than all the other major cancers combined," according to a statement by the Department of Defense.
More than 200,000 people are diagnosed with lung cancer nationwide each year.
As many as 25 percent of all lung cancers worldwide - 15 percent of those in men and 50 percent of those in women - are not attributable to smoking.
Nearly 160,000 die of the disease annually. Diagnosis often comes too late and survival rate remains an average of five years. That rate has remained the same for decades, a result of funding directed more toward prevention and little progress toward finding better treatments, health experts say.
The Department of Defense also acknowledges the connection between lung cancer and veterans.
"Military personnel have heightened exposure to lung cancer carcinogens," according to the statement. "The Army is expected to provide a plan for these funds and to include Walter Reed Army Medical Center in the formulation of this plan."
Lung cancer remains "under-funded, under-researched and under-reported,"
because it is viewed as "the black sheep" of cancers, advocates say.
In 2009, Congress gave $150 million to the Department of Defense for breast cancer research. Next year, breast cancer research will also receive $150 million while lung cancer funds will be reduced to $15 million.
"Although we view this as a success, we've got a long way to go," said Kim Norris, a Los Angeles resident who co-founded the Lung Cancer Foundation of America.
"But although we have a long way to go, there's some exciting things happening. I think it's giving us all some hope."
Weitz was nominated to participate on the panel by the Lung Cancer Foundation of America.
The foundation's goal is to raise funds that will lead to an increase in lung cancer research and treatment.
The foundation already has raised $125,000 for a research grant.
Weitz, 53, received the unexpected diagnosis a few years ago after visiting a physician because he experienced pain when he swallowed. Once diagnosed, he learned that treatment for those with lung cancer was so far behind that those with the disease often turn to clinical trials. After three rounds of chemotherapy, followed by radiation, he began taking Tarceva, a treatment used for pancreatic cancer.
Now Weitz is participating in a clinical trial which has shown promise, he said.
Weitz said he is honored to be participating in such an important decision-making process.
"It's going to be an interesting adventure," he said. "I've never served on a panel like this before, but it's gratifying to me that I have a role in what is a meritorious effort and that's very powerful."
Michael Owen Baker Staff Photographer
Dr. Michael Weitz, a physician at Saint John's Health Center, will be part of a panel that will decide how federal funds will be spent on lung cancer research.