A Cape Cod, Mass., man's last-chance treatment for cancer has been postponed by the government shutdown because new clinical trials cannot begin until they are registered on a federal website, which has been forced to stop processing applications.
Leo Finn said he had his bone scan canceled at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston on Wednesday, and the 48-year-old father of three is now unlikely to receive an experimental drug for his metastatic bile duct cancer next month as he had expected.
"It's been devastating for me and for my doctor, who was really excited about this drug," said Finn. "My idea is to get the word out that this is happening, since there may be other patients in the same situation."
As the government shutdown reaches its fourth day, Finn's plight highlights the concern among hospital officials and scientists that it could eventually have a far-reaching impact on patients and research.
Finn said he was diagnosed with terminal cancer in February. Doctors tried standard chemotherapy drugs, but they shrank his tumors for only a short time.
His Dana-Farber oncologist recommended that he try cabozantinib, a drug approved for thyroid cancer but still experimental to treat other cancers.
But before he could get the drug, the hospital had to launch a clinical trial, because no other patients with his type of cancer are receiving it. But the registration website, clinicaltrials.gov, is not able to process new requests.
Finn's case appears not to be an isolated example.
National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins told the Associated Press that each week the shutdown continues, the NIH hospital in Bethesda, Md., will have to turn away 200 patients, 30 of them children, seeking to enroll in studies, often for last-resort treatments after they have exhausted all other options.
Officials fear other consequences. Biomedical researchers may experience delays in having their pending grants approved. The NIH had to cancel grant review panels this week at the institutes' headquarters in Maryland.
"Some of my Brigham colleagues were supposed to attend these sessions today and were told not to come," Dr. Thomas Michel, a senior physician in cardiovascular medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, said Wednesday. "I have a grant pending and a group that's supposed to meet to discuss it on Oct. 17, but I don't know whether this is going to happen."
Other hospital researchers are nervous about an NIH grant application deadline Monday. Any delay in processing these submissions could leave labs without federal funding for an indefinite period and could delay projects.
When combined with threatened funding cuts because of the federal sequester, Michel said, he has never seen such "grim circumstances," which threaten to drive young biomedical scientists into other fields.
"We're getting closer and closer to the brink," he added.