Gene-based cancer research suffers setback, scientists say
Treatment likely won’t be as simple as hoped
Western lawmakers are stoking the flames of another Sagebrush Rebellion by moving to gain control of the federal lands within the states’ borders.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert is expected to sign a package of bills and resolutions that call for the federal government to transfer millions of acres of public territory to the state. Similar legislation has been introduced in Arizona, and legislators in other Western states are considering their own proposals.
The movement has prompted eye-rolling by some Democrats and legal experts who see the effort as a doomed outburst rooted in a faulty reading of the Constitution. But for Utah state Rep. Ken Ivory, who sponsored the House bill passed last week, the proposals represent a long-overdue chance for the federal government to live up to its statehood agreement.
“This isn’t just a chest-thumping exercise,” Mr. Ivory said. “It’s a serious issue throughout the Western states.”
Westerners have long chafed at the disparity between the federal government’s land holdings in the East and the West. In Utah, the federal government controls about 65 percent of the land. Add tribal lands and military installations, and less than one-third of the state is available to contribute to the tax base.
The state already struggles with the lowest education funding in the nation, even though 52 percent of the budget now goes toward K-12 per-pupil spending. Utah currently lags $2.2 billion behind the national average in K-12 funding, Mr. Ivory said.
At the same time, federal compensation for its land holdings is expected to decline. Last year, $5.2 billion of Utah’s $13 billion budget was based on federal funds.
“We are barely able to keep our head above water in terms of funding public education,” said Ally Isom, the governor’s spokeswoman. “So it’s precipitated a renewed interest in public-lands policy.”
The Utah bill, which passed the Senate on Wednesday, establishes a timetable for a federal transfer of lands to the state, with December 2014 as the deadline. Excluded from the transfer would be national monuments, national parks and congressionally designated wilderness areas.
Environmentalists have come out in opposition to the idea, arguing that the states have more incentive to develop the land than preserve it. The proposals have the support of some education groups, including the Utah Parent-teacher Association, but the teachers union is withholding its endorsement.
“We certainly have concerns with this particular approach, what with the potential cost involved with lawsuits and the likelihood that anything will come out of it is extremely low,” Utah Education Association spokesman Mike Kelley said.
The Utah legislative attorney has said that the effort is likely to run afoul of the courts, noting that the Supreme Court ruled in 1872 that only Congress may dispose of federal lands. A previous state-led movement to wrest control of public lands failed in the 1970s.
“This mirage is represented not only as a stand for states’ rights but also as a painless way to raise billions in taxes to support Utah’s overcrowded and underfunded schools,” said the Salt Lake Tribune in a Feb. 23 editorial. “Chance of success: Absolutely zero. Chance of motivating the far-right base of the Republican Party . . . : Appallingly high.”
The movement’s advocates argue that the federal government has failed to honor the agreement made at statehood in 1896. They note that the first 38 states have an average of only 4 percent federal ownership, but the federal government’s shift toward a conservation agenda in the early 20th century prevented most Western states from claiming their lands from the federal government.
Now states like North Dakota, which has only 3 percent federal lands, are enjoying an economic boom as a result of energy development on private and state property. Meanwhile, the Western states with similarly abundant resources are constrained by myriad federal regulations and public-lands lawsuits, critics say.
“Now we find ourselves today with 116 years of government entanglements and burdensome regulation on the public lands in Utah,” said state Rep. Roger Barrus, who supports the bills.
Interior spokesman Adam Fetcher said the department has no comment on the Utah bills. If the government refuses to turn over the lands by 2014, the Utah attorney general would be authorized to spend $3 million to launch a court battle.
With potentially billions in untapped tax revenue at stake, however, Utah lawmakers are willing to take a few risks. They’re also trying to build support. Mr. Herbert is planning to host a Rocky Mountain Roundtable of Western lawmakers in May to discuss the idea.
“All the states are watching Utah to see what happens, and he’s hoping we can lock arms and present a united front,” Ms. Isom said.
BOSTON | Scientists are reporting what could be very bad news for efforts to customize cancer treatment based on each person’s genes.
They have discovered big differences from place to place in the same tumor as to which genes are active or mutated. They also found differences in the genetics of the main tumor and places where the cancer has spread.
This means that the single biopsies on which doctors rely to choose drugs are probably not giving a true view of the cancer’s biology. It also means that treating cancer won’t be as simple as many had hoped.
By analyzing tumors in unprecedented detail, “We’re finding that the deeper you go, the more you find,” said one study leader, Dr. Charles Swanton of the London Research Institute’s Cancer Research UK.
“It’s like going from a black-and-white television with four pixels to a color television with thousands of pixels.”
Yet the result is a fuzzier picture of how to treat the disease.
The study is reported in Thursday’s New England Journal of Medicine.
It is a reality check for “overoptimism” in the field devoted to conquering cancer with new gene-targeting drugs, Dr. Dan L. Longo, a deputy editor at the journal, wrote in an editorial.
About 15 of these medicines are on the market now and hundreds more are in testing, but they have had only limited success. And the new study may help explain why.
The scientists used gene sequencing to a degree that has not been done before to study primary tumors and places where they spread in four patients with advanced kidney cancer.
They found that two-thirds of gene mutations they detected were not present in all areas of the same tumor.
They also were stunned to see different mutations in the same gene from one part of a tumor to another.
That means a single biopsy would reveal only a minority of mutations. Still, it’s not clear whether doing more biopsies would improve accuracy, or how many or how often they should be done.
Although the study involved kidney cancer, independent experts said the results should apply to other cancers such as breast, lung and colon. And previous research suggests this is so.
“This is an important paper,” said Dr. Gordon Mills, co-director of the Institute for Personalized Cancer Therapy at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.
Doctors there have been offering genetic testing to patients for several years and have a database of results on about 4,000 tumor samples.
So far, about 40 percent of breast cancers have discrepancies between which genes are active in the main tumor and which ones are active where the cancer has spread, Dr. Mills said.
It costs $5,000 to $10,000 to do basic gene analysis of the main tumor, and about 10 times as much to do the kind of testing the scientists in the British study did, Dr. Mills said.
And if it were done, “We’re going to find a lot of information that we don’t know what to do about,” such as when one biopsy suggests a certain mutation is driving the cancer and another biopsy suggests a different one is, he said.
It also takes precious time. Dr. Swanton said sequencing a patient’s entire cancer genome took a very large computer four months.
The amount of time required is dropping, but this type of personalized analysis is still years away from being available in the clinic, he said.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert is expected to sign legislation calling for the federal government to transfer control of federal lands to the state.