The expected hiring of renowned colon cancer expert Dr. Randall Holcombe to lead the University of Hawaii Cancer Center could result in a substantial donation from local philanthropists that would infuse the cash-strapped research center with much-needed capital.
At a UH Board of Regents meeting Thursday, where the board later approved Holcombe’s appointment, Virginia Weinman said she and her husband, Barry, longtime supporters of the university, want to donate $20 million to the Cancer Center.
“But only on the condition that the (National Cancer Institute) designation is not in jeopardy, which it will be if we don’t have a new director appointed immediately,” she told the regents in public testimony.
“That’s fairly stunning, Mrs. Weinman. Thank you,” regents Chairman Randy Moore said, eliciting applause from the audience. “For those of you not familiar with the Weinman family philanthropy, their name is at the top of the list outside on the wall.”
After the announcement, Weinman, who sits on the Friends of the UH Cancer Center board, declined to provide details about the potential gift, saying that there are “too many strings attached” and details to be worked out with the university.
Barry Weinman, a venture capitalist and former Navy officer, and Virginia Weinman, who founded a multimedia and website development company in California, have established various multimillion-dollar endowed fellowships, chairs and funds at the university over the years, including at the medical school and business college.
New director critical
The cancer center, a research unit of UH Manoa, has a mission of reducing the burden of cancer through research, education and patient care. More than 6,000 Hawaii residents are diagnosed with an invasive form of cancer every year, and some 2,000 die from the disease annually, making it the second leading cause of death in the state after heart disease.
The UH Cancer Center is one of 69 centers from among 1,600 centers nationwide that carry the federal National Cancer Institute designation — a distinction that recognizes scientific leadership, resources and a broad range and depth of research. The designation gives UH an edge when competing for federal funds and recruiting researchers.
UH first secured the designation in 1996, and received its latest five-year award in 2012. The recruitment of a highly qualified, permanent director is seen by many as critical to renewal of the federal designation.
With the impending renewal, word of the Weinmans’ potential donation comes at a crucial time as the university and lawmakers continue to haggle over the future of the center, which has been overspending revenues by $7 million to $10 million a year and burning through its reserve funds to stay afloat.
The university initiated a search for a director in November, exactly a year after the center’s controversial former director, Michele Carbone, resigned and Dr. Jerris Hedges, dean of the John A. Burns School of Medicine, was named interim director.
Even as the university has warned that the center is on track to deplete its reserves of cigarette tax revenue in about two years, lawmakers rejected UH’s request for an additional $5 million for operations for next fiscal year, citing the lack of a sustainable business plan. The Legislature denied a similar request the year before.
In attempts to appease lawmakers, UH has commissioned at least three business plans in recent years to try to turn around the center’s finances. The latest report recommended short-term steps to maximize revenue and productivity, including proposals to consolidate the medical school and the cancer center’s administrative services to reduce duplicated services, generate revenue by leasing empty space in the center and require newly recruited faculty to cover a portion of their salaries with grants.
Lingering disagreements over the center’s future surfaced in discussions about Holcombe’s hiring Thursday. Regent Benjamin Kudo, who voted against the appointment, called the recruitment premature.
“I think it’s unfair to the candidate that this uncertainty is placed upon his acceptance of this position,” Kudo said before the vote. “In terms of my responsibility to the future of the Cancer Center, because I want to see it succeed, I don’t think that engaging a cancer center director, whoever it might be and however qualified he may be, is a wise thing to do when he doesn’t know what we’re supposed to do to keep this center sustainable and viable.”
Regent Jeffrey Portnoy, who voted in favor of the appointment, said, “The Cancer Center’s chance for survival is largely dependent on the right individual running it, and we’ve not had that person. … I think we can all agree that what we have seen about this individual makes many of us feel, me personally, that we have been extraordinarily fortunate that someone with his background, skills and experience is seriously considering leading this cancer center to a viable and productive future.”
The board ultimately voted 10-2 to approve Holcombe’s appointment with a $410,004 annual salary, effective Sept. 1.
“We’re waiting for him to accept the now-approved formal offer,” Michael Bruno, UH Manoa’s vice chancellor for research, said after the vote.
Support shown for appointee
Holcombe is chief medical officer for cancer for Mount Sinai Health System, which runs seven hospital campuses in the New York City area.
He holds several titles within the organization, including deputy director for the Tisch Cancer Institute at Mount Sinai, director of the Derald H. Ruttenberg Treatment Center and director of ambulatory oncology at The Mount Sinai Hospital. He also is a professor of medicine in the Hematology and Medical Oncology Division at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.
UH Cancer Center supporters and faculty researchers expressed support for his appointment, with many of the testifiers highlighting the need for a permanent director to lead the center.
“All too many of us have family and friends who have been diagnosed with and succumbed to an incurable cancer,” said Diane Ono, who served on the search advisory committee that named Holcombe and three other candidates as finalists in March.
“The solution to lessening cancer’s burden on our state is research into why and how these cancers occur and also how the body responds to various therapies so that the best possible treatment is available to our residents right here at home,” she said, adding that she’s been a supporter of the center since her daughter, Mari, who was diagnosed with leukemia, was successfully treated in a clinical trial at the center in the 1990s.