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Md. med school readying bid for cancer center

The University of Maryland Medical Center and School of Medicine are close to culminating eight years of planning with the final submission of their bid for a federally designated Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Winning the designation from the National Cancer Institute would add prestige to the hospital and medical school’s cancer program. It also would make the existing Marlene and Stewart Greenebaum Cancer Center eligible for more research grants and clinical trials, officials said.

The designation indicates NCI recognizes the program as covering every aspect of cancer care and research. It already is held by the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins and 38 other programs nationwide.

New University of Maryland School of Medicine Dean Dr. E. Albert Reece has made winning the status one of his main goals. The cancer center tentatively is planning to submit an application to the NCI in October.

“There is a lot of prestige that comes with being an NCI-designated cancer center,” Reece said. “It indicates you are on the cutting edge of cancer research, that you have a chance of making a significant difference” in cancer treatment and prevention.

The federal program is designed to help foster collaborations and fund costly equipment for the maximum benefit to cancer research and patients, said Dr. Kevin J. Cullen, Greenebaum Center director.

“The whole concept … is to establish a structure where doctors and researchers can all work together … to try and bring new concepts from the laboratory into the clinic,” Cullen said. “It adds fuel to the group so they can get more interesting work done more quickly.”

Designated programs are eligible to receive from NCI up to $1 million in annual infrastructure funding for three years, and after that annual grants of as much as 15 percent of the program’s total research funding.

The Greenebaum Center already holds $15 million in NCI grants out of its total of nearly $40 million in external research funding, Cullen said.

The center’s effort to win the prestigious status began in 1999 when the university won a P20, a planning grant from NCI that made it eligible for $200,000 per year.

The funding that once went along with the P20 program was canceled soon after, but not before the Maryland program received about $800,000 in NCI funds.

Cullen has led the preparations since he joined the center three years ago.

Since then, the Greenebaum Center has added 37 faculty members for a total of 200, and its external research has grown from $24 million to nearly $40 million, Cullen said.

Planning efforts have benefited from the Maryland Cigarette Restitution Fund, which for fiscal 2007 alone granted the center $9 million, Cullen added.

Dr. Michael A. Caligiuri, director of the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center, chairs the Greenebaum Center’s external advisory board. He sits on 10 such boards nationwide, including at already-certified centers.

“They’ve made phenomenal progress in the past three years,” Caligiuri said of the University of Maryland. “I think they’re moving closer and closer to putting in a successful application.”

A serious barrier to the university’s application, however, is the NCI’s budget woes. Since 2001, the agency’s congressional appropriation has increased from $3.76 billion that year to $4.84 billion in fiscal 2006. But the increases are not enough to compensate for inflation and the institute’s funding need, said Caligiuri and Cullen, and the fate of pending Comprehensive Cancer Center applications is unknown. Some applications have been languishing for more than a year, they said.

“It’s not a very good environment,” said Cullen.

Caligiuri said he trusted Cullen’s judgment on whether to submit the final application in October and take his chances on whether NCI would grant any new designations.

If by the fall the institute hasn’t made decisions on already pending applications from distinguished outfits such as Stanford Comprehensive Cancer Center at Stanford University, “personally, I would pause rather than find myself on a waiting list that never moved,” Caligiuri said.