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University of Miami to benefit from $300-million plan to boost cancer research in Florida

Between Florida’s size and its senior population, cancer treatment is needed here more than in most other states. Yet Florida has only one facility — Tampa’s Moffitt Cancer Center — with the prestigious National Cancer Institute designation.

According to the American Cancer Society, Florida ranks second in the nation in cancer incidence and mortality, but 15th in NCI grant funding.

That could change under a proposal backed by Gov. Rick Scott and approved by the Legislature to spend $300 million over the next five years helping cancer centers at the University of Miami and University of Florida get NCI’s stamp of approval. Moffitt will get the largest share of the money to help it grow and improve.

“There’s unfortunately so much cancer in the state that even if we wanted to, we couldn’t take care of everybody,” Moffitt director and executive vice president Thomas Sellers said.

NCI, a division of the National Institutes of Health, gives varying designations to 68 cancer centers that pass a rigorous evaluation process. The title isn’t just an honor — with it comes special access to grants and clinical trials.

New York has six NCI centers and Texas has four. California leads the pack at 10. Even North Carolina, with half the population of Florida, has three.

Backers of the bill, which awaits Scott’s signature, want Miami’s Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center and the UF Health Cancer Center to join 41 others, including Moffitt, at the highest NCI designation, “comprehensive cancer centers.”

Proponents say that there is one comprehensive NCI center for every 7 or 8 million Americans. Florida, with nearly 20 million residents, should by that calculation have three centers with the resources and tools to tackle the toughest forms of cancer.

“We must continue to work to ensure that Florida families have access to world-class treatment without having to leave our state,” Scott said in a statement Friday. He is expected to hold a public event shortly to celebrate one of his priorities becoming law.

As Scott, a former hospital executive, seeks reelection, cancer funding has become one of his go-to topics. In 2013, he promoted a state Cancer Centers of Excellence program to identify top-level centers and give them priority for state-based research funding. That initiative attracted criticism by those who wondered what patients would make of the state imprimatur. Five centers have applied, but no designation has yet been awarded.

The Legislature also allocated an extra $10 million last year for Sylvester, Moffitt and UF to recruit top researchers to their cancer centers.

Because of the programs established last year, Senate President Don Gaetz was initially wary of the new NCI program and its $60 million price tag. Although he supported the idea, he preferred giving the 2013 initiatives time to take hold.

Gaetz is traveling out of the country and could not be reached for comment.

Moffitt will receive the largest share of the initial $60 million, about $26 million. It will use the money to hire more researchers, particularly in the field of immunology, harnessing the immune system to help patients fight cancer.

Moffitt also gets other types of state funding. Its total of about $54 million in 2014-15 is a huge jump from the $32 million it received last year. Other state dollars help pay for construction projects, research and education programs.

The UF center stands to receive about $18 million to start its five-year effort to gain NCI recognition. Because of its Proton Therapy Institute in Jacksonville and partnership with Orlando Health, UF believes it can make a strong case for how NCI’s designation would benefit a large swath of Florida.

Miami’s Sylvester, which will get $16 million from the new state program, was once an NCI-designated center but failed re-accreditation standards. Its leaders believe they can regain the title in three years.

A study commissioned by the University of Miami determined that ripple effects from an NCI designation would create a $1.7 billion economic impact by the year 2020.

“This city is booming, the population is increasing, the level of sophistication is increasing and we need to be here for the people of South Florida,” Sylvester director Stephen Nimer said.

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