Saturday, November 10, 2007

Touro University California to build the nation's first heavy-ion cancer treatment center

Friday, November 9, 2007

Med school has big plans for Vallejo East Bay Business Times - by Jessica Saunders

The former naval shipyard at Mare Island, once the biggest industrial plant in California, has a chance to get back on the map with a proposal by Touro University California to build the nation's first heavy-ion cancer treatment center.

The proposed center featuring Siemens technology would also be Touro's first venture into medical research, after years of training doctors, nurses and pharmacists. The university has an exclusive right to negotiate with the city of Vallejo on a development agreement for a 125,000-square-foot treatment center on a 20-acre parcel of Mare Island's northern end.

If approved, the deal would move forward development of "North Island" - 191 acres of bayfill that changed Mare Island into a peninsula that juts out of western Solano County between Vallejo and San Pablo Bay.

North Island is the first part of Mare Island that visitors see as they drive in from Highway 37, which parallels the northern boundary of the 191-acre parcel. The southern edge of the land is bordered by G Street, which connects to Vallejo via the Mare Island Causeway.

The heavy-ion facility is envisioned as the anchor of a future research and education campus that would include faculty and student housing, classrooms, a hotel and up to three other research facilities. The Navy still owns portions of North Island that require environmental cleanup and it is unclear when those sections can be transferred to the city. So for now, Touro and the city are focusing on developing the 20-acre section Vallejo already owns.

Touro would need 3½ years to complete the heavy-ion treatment center, because of its complex system of large magnets and powerful energy sources needed to accelerate and turn the ions, which are extremely heavy. In addition, putting such weighty machinery on soil that is mostly bayfill requires adding an expensive deep foundation to the bedrock. Even then, the center would be set on pilings. Meanwhile, both Siemens and its competitors are working on other heavy-ion projects across the United States in hopes of claiming first-in-the-nation honors.

With all that in mind, Touro is projecting a spring 2008 groundbreaking.

Touro is the Northern California campus of a Jewish-sponsored university based in New York City. It expects big gains from the proposed medical research campus. First, the center would enhance Touro's reputation nationally and internationally, while on the local level making it stand out among Bay Area medical schools, and second, the rapidly expanding university needs the room, said Richard Hassel, senior vice president of Touro University California. Development of Touro's existing 44-acre south Mare Island campus has been constrained by the need to preserve historic buildings.

"We needed something to separate us from the pack and we wanted to be on the cutting edge as far as the future of medicine goes," Hassel said.

"We knew we wanted a health science and education theme. We knew we wanted a biotech component."

Those goals led Touro to Siemens Medical Solutions USA Inc., which has an office in Concord. In 2005 the company contracted with the GSI heavy-ion research center in Darmstadt, Germany, to produce and market radiation therapy systems based on GSI research. Heavy ions refer to nuclei of large atoms, such as gold, that have more or fewer electrons than usual - or no electrons at all. When heavy ions are sped up in an accelerator and beamed at a cancer patient, they destroy tumors by attacking cancer cells' ability to replicate. It's the same principle at work in radiation therapy using X-rays or gamma rays, but heavy ions are more effective in fewer treatment sessions and can be calibrated and shaped to closely match the tumor, causing little or no damage to surrounding tissue.

Heavy-ion treatment is considered ideal for cancers located deep within the body and those too dangerous to treat surgically, such as on the spine or in the eye.

"The boundaries of where this technology is going to lead us is just not known," Hassel said.

There are heavy-ion treatment centers in Chiba and Hyogo, Japan, plus the recently built Heidelberg Ion-Beam Therapy Centre in Heidelberg, Germany. In addition, more than 300 patients have been treated at the GSI research facility in Darmstadt. New treatment centers are proposed or under construction in Austria, Italy and Marburg, Germany.

Should the heavy-ion treatment center in Vallejo win approval, the technology would return home to the East Bay: charged-particle radiotherapy was pioneered at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory on the UC-Berkeley campus. Researchers there treated a cancer patient with accelerated protons in 1954.

"It's very appropriate that it comes back to the San Francisco Bay Area where there are a number of scientists who have worked with it and doctors who have experience with it," said Dennis Falkenstein, vice president of particle therapy solutions for Siemens Medical Solutions USA in Concord.

The university first approached Vallejo with a plan for North Island about 18 months ago while the city was "in process with another developer," Hassel said. Lennar Mare Island LLC, master developer for 653 island acres whose northern boundary adjoins the North Island section, proposed a mix of light industrial, commercial office and residential-over-retail space for the 191 acres, said spokesman Jason Keadjian of Keadjian Associates.

When Touro brought forward its plan - a multimillion dollar research center with an annual payroll of $14 million to $16 million and a chance to be first in the nation - the Vallejo City Council and its economic development staff sought a compromise that would allow Lennar Mare Island to continue as master developer and create a land-use plan that would achieve Touro's goals, Keadjian said. "But ultimately, that did not work out. It was clear that Touro University wanted to be its own developer."

LMI's exclusive right to negotiate with the city for North Island expired, and on Jan. 9, the city approved a new exclusive deal with Touro. The agreement was extended 90 days in July and again in October for 120 days, with the current expiration on Feb. 5. The city manager can authorize another 60-day extension to April 2 if he believes progress is being made.

Three previous developers could not make the project work financially with a mixed-use plan, said Hassel, who believes a health sciences-based development has a better chance to generate jobs. The city lost 13,000 jobs overall due to the closure of the naval shipyard in 1995, and job creation is both a key redevelopment goal and a provision for the Navy to convey the land at no cost to the city. Currently there are 90 businesses on the island providing 1,544 full-time and 280 part-time jobs.

It's not clear how much a developer would pay for the North Island property, which economic development program manager Susan McCue said requires an estimated $20 million in infrastructure work, including demolishing old Navy buildings, widening roads and upgrading utilities.

"The costs to bring this online are so high it probably takes an end-user to make it pencil," McCue said.

If Vallejo and Touro agree to develop the 20 acres, there is no obligation for the city to pursue the rest of the university's proposal for the North Island, she said. "But it certainly makes sense for us to sit back down and continue talking with Touro once we get past" the cancer center.

Touro has chosen the international engineering and consulting firm Arcadis as its developer and plans to seek the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design platinum rating for the cancer center.

The center's dual purposes of treatment and research would be operated with clinical and academic partners, Hassel said. Clinical partners might be a hospital or a combination of hospitals. Would the likely academic partner be the Berkeley university where this therapy was pioneered? "That's a good assumption," Hassel said.


Touro University

Chartered in 1970 in New York, Touro College began with 35 students in liberal arts and sciences. Over the past 37 years, the school's enrollment has grown to 23,000 spread over 29 campuses in California, Florida, Nevada, New York, Berlin, Jerusalem and Moscow. The Bay Area campus began in 1997 in San Francisco with 60 students, then moved in 1999 to the south end of Mare Island, where it now teaches 1,000 graduate students at its colleges of osteopathic medicine, pharmacy, health sciences and education.

Touro is in negotiations to buy its 44-acre campus from Lennar Mare Island LLC. In addition to its research campus proposal, the university plans to add undergraduate programs.

Touro University was named for colonial leaders Judah and Isaac Touro of Newport, R.I., who helped endow universities, libraries and community health facilities. They were inspired by hearing George Washington speak in 1790 at Touro Synagogue in Newport. | 925-598-1427

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