Originally created 02/06/01

Area's leaders race to get cancer center



Augusta is scrambling to get back into the competition for one of three cancer centers of excellence envisioned under Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes' $800 million cancer proposal.

About 25 people met at the Augusta Metro Chamber of Commerce on Monday to talk about what Augusta needs to do to make a pitch for one of the three centers that are part of the Georgia Cancer Coalition, chamber President Jim West said. Senate Majority Leader Charles Walker, D-Augusta, also held meetings over the weekend on the cancer center, Mr. West said.

Augusta leaders were alarmed last week when they got wind that Savannah already had made a strong pitch to Mr. Barnes to get one of the centers, Mr. West said. One center has already been targeted for Grady Hospital in Atlanta, and competition is fierce among Georgia cities to snag the other two.

Savannah's Memorial Health University Medical Center, in fact, is holding a groundbreaking ceremony Wednesday on its $5.6 million Center for Cancer Care addition, and Mr. Barnes will be there.

But that addition had been planned for the last year or two and was not done specifically to draw one of the cancer centers, said Sally Welsh, administrator of oncology and medicine services at Memorial. Still, it would be nice to get one of the new cancer centers, she said.

"The timing of it was perfect for us when he started announcing all of his plans," Ms. Welsh said.

"It's an example of the public-private partnerships we're going to need if our initiative is going to be successful," Barnes spokeswoman Joselyn Butler said.

So far, no one has put together a proposal on why Augusta should get one of the centers, Mr. West said.

"I think Augusta is playing catch-up right now, I surely do,"he said. "The chamber is trying to pull together the players who would have impact on the project, be it financial or political clout."

Although Mr. Barnes announced the initiative in May and announced the cancer center part of it in November, "many of us in the community were not aware of this project until last week," Mr. West said.

Augusta does have an edge in that Mr. Barnes has said he wants the centers to attain the status of National Cancer Institute-designated Cancer Centers, and that means having both basic and clinical cancer research that can translate into better treatments, said Matthew J. Kluger, vice president for research at Medical College of Georgia.

Outside of Emory University in Atlanta, Augusta is the only place in the state that does such extensive research, particularly if it chooses to form partnerships with scientists at the University of Georgia in Athens, Dr. Kluger said. Augusta also has the Georgia Medical Center Authority, which is trying to foster a local biotechnology industry and could aid the creation of a cancer center, Dr. Kluger said.

It's not too late for Augusta, although it is going to take cooperation and teamwork, Dr. Kluger said. The governor has not announced when he will decide the cancer center locations, officials said. "The ball is in our court, and we could drop the ball," Dr. Kluger said. "But if we don't drop the ball, we should become one of the cancer centers."

Reach Tom Corwin at (706) 823-3213.