Despite delays, Windber leaders say new cancer center remains priority

Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong speaks during the formal renaming of Windber Medical Center on Oct. 8, 2016.

WINDBER – A new cancer center is still in the works for Windber’s hospital, but other priorities have delayed the project until next year, leaders say.

When the former Windber Medical Center joined the former Windber Research Institute as part of Chan Soon-Shiong NantHealth Foundation in January 2016, cancer was central to the vision.

NantHealth founder and billionaire Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong is leading a coalition of institutions exploring immunotherapy for cancer.

The renamed Chan Soon-Shiong Medical Center at Windber’s popular breast cancer program at Joyce Murtha Breast Care Center – and the Chan Soon-Shiong Institute of Molecular Medicine at Windber’s renowned breast cancer work – were the magnets that attracted the nation’s richest doctor to invest in Somerset County.

A new cancer treatment center that would provide medical oncology, with access to clinical trials through Soon-Shiong’s network, was originally slated to open late last year, but the project has faced several delays, said Tom Kurtz, president and CEO of both CSS facilities in Windber.

“We had a set of priorities initially,” Kurtz said. “The cancer center was No. 2; the cath lab was No. 1.”

Kurtz said “bureaucratic delays” pushed back the development of a cardiology program with catheterization lab for angioplasty and stenting.

Dr. Samir Hadeed, a well-known Johnstown cardiologist, will lead the program. 

Hadeed recently relocated his Johnstown Heart and Vascular Center from Broad Street to his new a 30,000-square-foot medical facility at the intersection of Theatre Drive and Eisenhower Boulevard in Richland Township.

The heart program should launch later this year, Kurtz said.

“Now we can concentrate on the cancer center,” he said.

Another factor that delayed the cancer center was a search for a larger organization to back the treatment. Major universities and larger hospitals were among the “clinical partners” Kurtz said were being considered last year.

That search may have ended.

“Patrick (Soon-Shiong) has developed a cancer center in California,” Kurtz said. “We’ll see if we can piggyback off of that. We might not need a national partner if we can franchise that center here.”

The Chan Soon-Shiong Institute for Medicine at Mariposa – which opened in July in El Segundo, California – is touted as a state-of-the-art treatment and diagnostics center.

During opening ceremonies, Soon-Shiong said the center will pioneer the latest immunotherapy for all types of cancers.

“I think the idea that chemotherapy is toxic and metastasis is fatal is what this institute is going to try to disprove,” Soon-Shiong said in July. “We truly believe we must change for all patients with cancer this concept that high-dose chemotherapy is the standard of care.”

Once the Windber program is developed and approvals are in place, Kurtz said it won’t take long to start treating patients in a transitional location until renovations create a permanent home.

“We are waiting for them to establish that national model,” he said. “The advantage to the cancer center is, it is not going to require a huge capital investment. We can have it open in six months, once we are licensed.”

The medical oncology center will build on the success of Joyce Murtha Breast Care Center, which Kurtz called the “centerpiece” for Windber’s hospital.

Patient satisfaction, the latest technology and a compassionate staff bring women from numerous counties to the breast center. Kurtz said the cancer center expects to attract from a similar geography. 

Randy Griffith is a multimedia reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at 532-5057. Follow him on Twitter @PhotoGriffer57.