Opinion/Editorial from the Daily Press, Newport News, VA

Cancer and apathy

HU's proton treatment center deserves more support

March 25th 2007
A quiz, if you don't mind. Which would you figure is more important: a replica of a sailing ship or a powerful new tool for fighting, even curing cancer?

The General Assembly, inexplicably, figured they are equally important. The Schooner Virginia, owned by a non-profit group and docked in Norfolk, got $500,000 in the recently adopted budget, bringing the legislature's total donations to well over $1 million. Hampton University's planned proton beam center got the same amount, $500,000.

There is certainly no disrespect, here, for sailboats, sailors or all things salty. But surely a facility that will bring to this area both healing and an economic boon is more worthy of public investment than a waterborne "goodwill ambassador."

Hampton University's proposal to build a proton beam center has elicited both surprise - after all, the university has no medical school - and enthusiasm. That's because proton beams offer revolutionary technology, making it possible to excise certain cancerous tumors with unparalleled precision, minimizing the damage to other tissues and complications that traditional radiation can cause.

With that kind of safety, higher doses of radiation can be used to fight the cancer. And when a tumor can be excised completely in the early stages, the likelihood it will spread can be reduced. Proton beam therapy is appropriate for certain cancers that require high doses of radiation and are close to sensitive organs. The Hampton center will concentrate on prostate, breast, lung, eye and pediatric cancers.

Not only will it make life-saving treatment more accessible to area residents, it will yield economic dividends by bringing thousands of patients here for treatments. Now, anyone needing this treatment must seek it at one of the nation's five existing centers, in Florida, Texas, Indiana, Boston and California.

Hampton University President Bill Harvey is such a believer in the project, in the rightness of it for the region and the state and his university, he has vowed to step out in faith: to break ground on the center this summer and count on raising the $200 million it will require. If anyone can raise it, Harvey can.

But it would be easier if the General Assembly could see the value of the project - and realize that it has at least as much promise as many projects, including the Schooner Virginia and multiple private museums, to which it has made multimillion-dollar commitments.

The Hampton City Council saw the potential, contributing land for the project. So did Sentara, which will bring medical expertise to the table. It will be great to have the other hospitals in the area sign on, too. There may be ways to enhance the training and research angles through partnership with the Eastern Virginia Medical School. HU also plans to add a center for research on the cancers that disproportionately affect minorities.

There may be more ways to help. Hampton could think of the center as Jacksonville did its center: as an economic development project worth investing in.

But Virginia needs to get behind the project - soon. The Illinois congressional delegation is behind a proton beam facility at Northern Illinois University, near Chicago, and trying to get federal support. It can't hurt to have Barack Obama carrying your colors these days, especially when former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert is working the other side of the aisle. And there are plans under way for centers at the University of Pennsylvania, the Mayo Clinic, Seattle and Oklahoma City. If Hampton is late out of the box, critical sponsorships and medical affiliations could be snatched away.

Given the $27 million the General Assembly found in the new budget for non-state projects - some for worthy causes, some for the cultural equivalent of Tina's Tap and Twirl - it's discouraging, and inexplicable, that the General Assembly didn't see the promise in HU's project.

Fortunately, there will be a chance next year to make a serious commitment - a commitment to saving lives and boosting an immensely important sector of the economy. Some legislative enthusiasm is in order.


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