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Fighting cancer with tobacco money


MONEY from the 50-state tobacco settlement provides an unprecedented opportunity for Maryland to boost funding for cancer research and treatment and become a national model in caring for cancer patients.

Indeed, Maryland is poised to become the country's premier center for cancer research and treatment. Our resources are abundant: the University of Maryland's cancer center, the Johns Hopkins Oncology Center, the National Institutes of Health and all the related medical service and research firms in this area.

Yet today's environment of medical cost-cutting could compromise our hard-fought battle against cancer, if there isn't a major increase in funding. The tobacco settlement couldn't come at a better time.

As chairman of the board of the University of Maryland Medical System, I have seen firsthand the heartbreaking struggle to balance budgets without jeopardizing precious progress in the fight against cancer. We don't always win.

It's clearly in the state's interest -- for economic and public health reasons -- to invest in cancer research and treatment.

Despite all that has been accomplished, four of every 10 Americans will eventually get cancer. In Maryland, despite all of our resources, we have the sixth-highest rate of cancer incidence and mortality in the nation.

By next year, 20 percent of all health-care costs will be for cancer-related illnesses. These costs will skyrocket as baby boomers age.

With more funding, we could do a better job of detecting cancers early and develop cheaper, less invasive ways to screen patients.

Also, we would have the potential to attack cancers more effectively and with fewer side effects by employing the latest, high-tech treatments. Most critically, we must ensure that advances reach all Marylanders whether they live in Baltimore or Frostburg.

The University of Maryland Medical Center (UMMC) is creating a clinical trials network and developing close working relationships with oncologists and hospitals throughout Maryland to improve the quality of cancer-patient care. Also, UMMC has focused on the cancers most prevalent among our citizens -- nearly 50 percent of which are tobacco related.

UMMC receives no state funds for the cancer center. But Maryland deserves a major cancer center on par with the M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, which annually receives $24 million from its state government, and the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute in Orlando, which gets $10 million per year from the state of Florida.

Such funding covers many needs that otherwise would not be met in today's managed health-care environment, including:

Advanced research not covered by NIH or other grants.

Funds to help lure promising young physicians and research scientists.

State-of-the-art research and patient care facilities.

Establishment of a statewide cancer care network.

Creation of a research infrastructure to support growing programs.

One example of this development process is the Bone Marrow/Stem Cell Transplant Program at UMMC. Five years ago, NationsBank made a commitment to build this program.

In 1996, the Red Cross National Tissue Typing Lab was constructed at UMMC. A year later, UMMC successfully recruited a renowned international stem cell transplant specialist and his team.

As a result, the number of people cured after receiving such transplants at UMMC have tripled. Patients are coming to Maryland from throughout the country for the treatments. UMMC is leading research and clinical trials to expand the types of cancers for which this treatment may be used. Dozens of new doctors are being trained in these techniques. But the cost of building this program has climbed to more than $9 million, only some of which is recoverable.

With the proper resources, the state could become the key center for cancer care in the nation. In the past, the state's political leadership has worked to build the great medical institutions of which we are all so proud, and has enacted the equally important body of law supporting progressive health care.

For example, last year, passage of the clinical trials bill, requiring insurers to pay for treatments still considered experimental, made Maryland the best state in the nation for innovative clinical trials.

The governor and the General Assembly will face a major test as they decide how to spend proceeds from the tobacco settlement. Without continuing state support for cancer center development, the looming threat of this disease will overwhelm us and a great opportunity will be lost.

The University of Maryland Medical System's Greenebaum Cancer Center is named for my wife, Marlene, and me. I am proud of my commitment to this great facility and team, and want to see the center built into a national leader. But I never wanted it to be a monument.

Rather, as Marlene so eloquently put it at the dedication, we look forward to the day when cancer has been conquered, the center is closed and our names are taken off the wall.

As decisions are made on how to best invest tobacco settlement dollars (Maryland is expected to get at least $4.2 billion over 25 years), we want the public to be aware of this rare opportunity to have a major impact on cancer research and care in Maryland.

Stewart J. Greenebaum has been chairman of the board of the University of Maryland Medical System for five years.

Pub Date: 1/29/99

Writer Stewart J. Greenebaum's name was misspelled on yesterday's Opinion Commentary page.The Sun regrets the error.
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