The U.S. government is unlikely to boost its funding for cancer research, already stagnant at about $4.8 billion annually for five years, until 2011, said John E. Niedenhuber, director of the National Cancer Institute.

The looming presidential election and the budget process have reduced the chance of more money for the NCI, which pays for half of all patient trials in the U.S., Niedenhuber said Friday at the meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology in Chicago.

The drought in funding, which has persisted longer than anticipated and has worsened because of medical inflation, is damaging research efforts and cutting into advances in patient care, he said at a press conference. Cancer research funding has historically had peaks and valleys, and Niedenhuber said he initially thought the industry could absorb a temporary decline.

"The trough that began in 2004 has stayed unbelievably flat, and that's causing the pain," he said. "We can adjust for a year or two years, but it's the fourth and fifth year that has really gotten us into the marrow."

When inflation rates are taken into account, spending on cancer research is down $500 million since 2003, said Nancy Davidson, ASCO president and director of the breast cancer program at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Government-funded programs have closed projects in brain cancer, melanoma and pediatric cancers and have postponed or canceled up to 100 studies, she said.

ASCO is starting advertisements in USA Today and other publications next week to call attention to the stagnation in research funding. The group is holding its annual meeting through June 3 in Chicago.

"The bleak funding picture means that potentially lifesaving research is being put on hold and groundbreaking new projects may never get out of the gates," said Dan Smith, president of the American Cancer Society's advocacy group, in a statement. "Whoever is elected president needs to make cancer funding a top priority to help put the country back on track, before we lose any more ground."

There are 3,000 fewer patients now enrolled in clinical trials than in the past, and the number of medical students and researchers in laboratories also are declining, the doctors said. While grants in the past were increased slightly each year to adjust for inflation, those increases haven't been given for several years and many investigators are getting a little less now, he said.

"I'd like to say I'm optimistic about the future," Niedenhuber said. "But we're not the only pothole that's desperately in need of resources. We have significant pressures on our national budget, and hopefully with time that will change."

The budget for 2009 is already crafted, and the next presidential administration won't have the time or resources to do much in 2010, Niedenhuber said. The new administration's first true budget proposal is for 2011, he said.

Niedenhuber said he hopes Congress will provide extra money in the meantime "to help us recoup that inflationary loss and help us maintain the momentum. We don't have our heads in the sand. We aren't whining. We're trying to be aggressive about finding opportunities and finding the resources to support those opportunities."