Originally created 12/23/01

Initiative on cancer proceeds

ATLANTA - With cancer killing more than 12,000 Georgians every 12 months, health care leaders from across the state were hoping 2001 would be the year Gov. Roy Barnes named a board of directors to oversee the cancer initiative he created last year.

While the board might not be in place before January, the governor's fledgling bid to make Georgia a national leader in cancer prevention, research and treatment has made substantial progress on every other front during its first full year.

Construction is under way in Atlanta on the state's first world-class cancer center, a collaboration involving Grady Memorial Hospital and Emory University. The first batch of what is expected to become a cadre of 150 cancer researchers has begun work at several institutions across the state, including the University of Georgia and the Medical College of Georgia.

And the $1 billion Georgia Cancer Coalition, which Mr. Barnes unveiled more than 1 1/2 years ago, received its first funding during 2001: appropriations from the General Assembly totaling more than $60 million.

But perhaps the most important development has been the hiring of an executive director to steer the multipronged effort. In September, Russ Toal left the role of commissioner of the Georgia Department of Community Health, which the governor gave him two years ago when he created the agency, to head the cancer initiative.

"Cancer is where the fun and action are," Mr. Toal said last week during an interview. "The breakthroughs we're going to see in our ability to detect, diagnose and treat cancer are going to be remarkable."

As the initiative enters its second year, what is most likely to keep its progress on track is its source of money. The 40 percent share of the project's funding being covered by the state is coming from Georgia's allotment of the national tobacco settlement, which Mr. Barnes has exempted from spending cuts.

That will give Mr. Toal and the new board, whose members are expected to be appointed as early as this week, a freer hand than most state officials in pursuing their priorities.

At the top of the list is the designation of other cancer centers to be built in the state. During the initiative's early months, Mr. Barnes and others talked about creating three centers, but Mr. Toal is being less specific about the number.

Still, the number of centers will be limited by the number of Georgia communities that are in a position to qualify for the designation, he said.

"To be a center, there has to be some level of research going on, and some link to an academic program," he said.

With MCG in its back yard, Augusta has been considered a leading candidate for a cancer center from the get-go, and Mr. Toal has done nothing to discourage that thinking. He has been effusive in his praise of community leaders for developing a plan for a regional network that includes not only the medical college and the University of Georgia, but also all Augusta hospitals and Athens Regional Medical Center.

"What we're really looking for are regional programs of excellence, not just one building," Mr. Toal said. "The folks in Augusta are doing it right."

MCG President Dr. Daniel W. Rahn envisions Augusta as a regional hub for both advanced cancer treatment and experimentation with cutting-edge technology.

"The Augusta medical community already has broad capability for advanced medical treatment," he said. "But for clinical trials, in particular where a first or second round of treatment may have failed, patients have gone to other cancer centers. We need a broader clinical-trials program."

Mr. Toal has been less enthusiastic about Savannah's candidacy for a cancer center.

"They have a very broad coverage area that stretches to Bulloch County and Vidalia, and south along the coast," he said. "(But) I have yet to see active involvement (in Savannah's bid) from folks in the region."

Bob Colvin, the president and CEO of Savannah's Memorial Health University Medical Center, contends that what Mr. Toal really is concerned about is that the city's two competing hospitals, Memorial Health and St. Joseph's/Candler Health System, haven't finalized an agreement to work together on winning the state designation for Savannah.

Mr. Colvin said the two are at the table and expect to reach a deal that would involve collaborating on cancer prevention, education and screening.

Mr. Toal said the new board will have the final decision on how many cancer centers will be built and where they will be located.

And what will it mean for a community to have a state-designated cancer center? Mr. Toal said it goes beyond access to the state's pocketbook. After all, 60 percent of the cancer coalition's money will come from the federal government and private fund raising.

"I look at us as being like the National Cancer Institute," Mr. Toal said. "The actual amount of grant money the NCI provides to a particular center is rather small. But these designations carry a Good Housekeeping label ... that distinguishes them from every other place that calls itself a cancer center."

"Cancer is where the fun and action are. The breakthroughs we're going to see in our ability to detect, diagnose and treat cancer are going to be remarkable." - Russ Toal, the executive director of the cancer center effort

Reach Dave Williams at (404) 589-8424 or mnews@mindspring.com.


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