By Maria Saporta
Published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on Friday, March 29, 2013
In February of 2000, then-Gov. Roy Barnes began coalescing a team of leaders to turn Georgia from a “worst to first” leader in the fields of cancer research and treatment.
He envisioned a $1 billion public-private initiative that would lead to the establishment of a comprehensive National Cancer Institute center in the state, to attracting 150 cancer scientists and clinicians, to building cancer care centers across the state, to becoming a leading center for clinical trials, to creating a tissue bank, and to increasing the survivability rates for thousands of Georgians who had been diagnosed with cancer.
To accomplish those goals, Barnes announced he was going to allocate a large share of Georgia’s windfall tobacco settlement funds to his cancer initiative — the Georgia Cancer Coalition.
Fast-forward to 2013.
The former governor, in a recent talk at the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Action Network Georgia Research breakfast, reflected on what had been accomplished and what lies ahead.
“We have made tremendous strides,” Barnes said. “More people are surviving cancer. Today there’s a 66 to 67 percent survival rate. By 2020, the goal is 72 percent to have a five-year survival rate. The results for children have been tremendous. Prior to 1975, fewer than 1 in 2 children would survive cancer. Now it’s 80 percent. But it’s not all good news. And we need not rest on our laurels.”
Barnes went on to list several kinds of cancers without high survival rates. And that’s where research comes in.
In talking to several people in the field, the goals Barnes established in 2000 have largely been fulfilled.
In adding up all the state’s cancer-dedicated funding, the federal research grants as well as private dollars, the $1 billion goal has been exceeded.
At least 150 cancer clinicians and scientists were hired as part of the program, providing extensive resources both at universities and at cancer health centers.
And Emory University’s Winship Cancer Center did receive National Cancer Institute designation in 2009.
“No question, it moved the needle on research funding and getting the designation at Emory,” said Bill Todd, former president of the Georgia Cancer Coalition. “Georgia was the largest state and Atlanta was the largest city without one. The ultimate accomplishment was in the reduction of the mortality rate.”
Barnes said a couple of strategic decisions helped ensure the initiative’s success. He set up a separate budget unit so the tobacco funds would not be swallowed up in the state’s general fund.
“I was determined that I was not going to let Georgia waste this money,” Barnes said. “I wanted to do something that had long-lasting health effects.”
In fact, Todd said Georgia did receive “tremendous accolades from the cancer community around the country for allocating [so] much of its tobacco settlement” to the cancer initiative.
The situation has since changed.
In January 2012, the Georgia Cancer Coalition became an initiative of the Georgia Research Alliance in an effort to align the state’s economic development assets.
“We have made tremendous strides in building more of that research capacity across the universities,” said Mike Cassidy, president of the Georgia Research Alliance. “The academic research is happening.”
At the same time, the Georgia Cancer Oncology Research and Education (Georgia CORE) became an independent entity so it can continue its efforts to increase access to in-state clinical trials.
Nancy Paris, president of Georgia CORE, said that in 2002, there were 82 cancer-related clinical trials, and today that has increased nearly tenfold to between 750 and 800. Plus the general public and doctors can find out about which trials are under way at GeorgiaCancerInfo.org.
Paris said she “enrolled on a mission” when she joined the state’s cancer initiative.
“It was a unique time historically, and we were able to take advantage of that as a state,” Paris said. “The successes that we can point to now are pretty spectacular.”
That said, Paris added that “people know we don’t have the same statewide focus on cancer. It has not been the same priority under subsequent governors. But they have continued to provide support.”
Still Paris said she believes having a statewide cancer strategy and focus is important for Georgia.
Barnes said there are a few parts of his initial vision that have yet to be fully realized — specifically making Georgia a leading center for cancer vaccine research.
Cassidy said Georgia’s cancer investments have had a lasting impact.
“It would be great if the state were in a position to be able to put in hefty funding into cancer research,” Cassidy said. “I don’t think we have lost momentum. But more could be done if the resources were there.”
When it comes to developing cancer vaccines, Cassidy said, “We are very well poised to move in that direction. We are going to make a big push.”
Given how cancer impacts families in Georgia and the United States, Barnes said it is critical that research funding from federal, state and private sources continues.