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With Investment, City's Healthcare and Biosciences Sector Poised for Growth
June 8, 2016

Aerial view of the South Texas Medical Center in San Antonio. Photo by Scott Ball

Robert Rivard,
The Rivard Report

With an investment of $5 million in 2017 bond money, the UT Health Science Center's Cancer Therapy and Research Center in San Antonio could complete its new partnership with Houston's MD Anderson Cancer Center and stop thousands of San Antonians from leaving the city to seek treatment elsewhere. The $5 million would help the CTRC achieve its $37 million goal to create a new comprehensive cancer treatment plan here.

Such a dramatic opportunity to elevate the quality of cancer treatment therapies in San Antonio and keep patients from having to temporarily move to Houston was presented by Dr. William Henrich, UTHSCSA president, to the City Council's Economic and Human Development Committee on Wednesday.

Committee meetings often draw a bare quorum of Council members and even thinner audiences, but Wednesday's session chaired by Councilman Joe Krier (D9) was attended by four other council members and took place in a packed room at the Municipal Plaza Building, where a who's who of the city's healthcare, biosciences and academic research sectors gathered for a sequence of compelling and somewhat overwhelming presentations.

Councilmembers Ron Nirenberg (D8), Mike Gallagher (D10), Roberto Trevino (D1) and Rebecca Viagran (D3) joined Krier for Wednesday's session.

The message from Henrich and a succession of other leaders in the sector to committee members was clear: The engine driving San Antonio's smart jobs economy continues to be the growing healthcare and biosciences sector. With modest bond investments in the next five-year cycle – some for infrastructure, some for innovation – the South Texas Medical Center, UTHSCSA, UTSA, BioMed SA and their many research and treatment partners are poised to take a developmental leap forward, create thousands of new smart jobs, and improve treatment outcomes throughout the city.

One in six jobs in the city is now in the related health care and biosciences sector, accounting for 165,000 jobs citywide with an annual $30 billion economic impact. Much of that activity is centered in District 8, but data gathered by the San Antonio Medical Foundation clearly shows the beneficiaries of those services are equally distributed throughout the 10 council districts. On a per capita basis, as many people from the inner city come to the South Texas Medical Center as do residents of the outlying suburban districts.

For all the numbers Wednesday, it was the opportunity poignantly delivered by Dr. Henrich, a kidney disease specialist and cancer survivor thanks to the cutting-edge treatment he received over eight months at MD Anderson in Houston. In 2012 Henrich was diagnosed with myelodysplasia, a blood and bone marrow disorder that can sometimes lead to acute myelogenous leukemia. Many thought he would not stay in his job, perhaps not even survive.

"I know from personal experience, very personal experience, what it is like to uproot yourself to move to another city to undergo treatment, to have to live in an apartment, to leave your job," Henrich told the hushed audience. "I was fortunate, my wife and I had the resources, I had my job, but most people can't afford to move to another city, get an apartment, and live there for months while getting treatment. Right now there are 1,000 to 1,200 people leaving San Antonio to seek treatment in another city. We are building something so that no one ever has to leave San Antonio for cancer treatment in another city. No one."

Henrich's treatment in Houston from 2012 into 2013 required him to take an extended leave of absence from his position at the head of UTHSCSA while he and his wife lived for a time near MD Anderson. Back then, Henrich praised San Antonio's stem cell transplant program, but said he chose MD Anderson to gain access to therapies in clinical trial, and to be treated by hematology specialists working there he knew as chair of the Department of Medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore. Still, Henrich's move to Houston sent un unmistakable message that the best cancer treatment in the world, then and now, is found in Houston.

San Antonio has the opportunity to become recognized as one of the elite medical treatment and research centers in the country, Henrich said, but he also acknowledged it faces growing competition. San Antonio recently witnessed a $40 million diabetes treatment center it thought would come here instead go to McAllen as part of the emerging UT-Rio Grande Valley School of Medicine in Edinburg and the planned establishment of the Doctors Hospital at Renaissance Medical Research Facility. A greater long-term threat to the continued growth of the San Antonio Medical Center is the coming Dell School of Medicine at UT-Austin, which is welcoming its first class of 50 students this month.

"This place is a job engine for the city," Henrich said of the South Texas Medical Center. "With all due respect to the new Dell Medical School in Austin, we have a big head start here in San Antonio. The question is: Can we elevate ourselves into the ranks of the most elite medical institutions in the country?"

Again, the message was clear: San Antonio must invest to grow its healthcare and biosciences sector.

Ann Stevens, BioMed SA president, led off the day's presentations, describing San Antonio's decade-long evolution into a "city of science and health," now home to the "nation's largest military medical center" that is closely allied with the five major civilians hospital groups.

Military-civilian collaboration, medical conventions like the annual San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium and the 2014 World Stem Cell Summit, a growing number of biotech startups, bioscience research organizations, and the growing number of health profession education initiatives all contribute to an ecosystem that deserves wider recognition outside the city than it has received to date, Stevens said.

"A key strength is the collaborative environment and supportive government in San Antonio," Stevens said.

Stevens did not make a direct pitch for additional funding from City Council, but BioMed SA has accomplished a lot on a minimalist budget of $550,000, some of which comes from the City. The organization, now 10 years old, is working to expand from its initial mission to raise awareness of the city's biosciences sector to play a more proactive role in economic development. It will be a challenge to do more unless it attracts additional funding.

San Antonio Medical Foundation

Jim Reed, the longtime president of the San Antonio Medical Foundation, delivered the next presentation, noting the foundation's 69-year history of leveraging its considerable real estate assets into the fast-growing South Texas Medical Center and the consortium of the eight largest landowners that coalesced in 1998 to form the Medical Center Alliance (MCA): Baptist Health System, Cancer Therapy and Research Center at the UT Health Science Center, CHRISTUS Santa Rosa Healthcare, San Antonio Medical Foundation, Methodist Healthcare, Methodist Healthcare Ministries, University Health System, and The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.

The foundation still controls 230 acres of undeveloped property it will use to "attract research, science, clinical and educational growth," and work to make the Medical Center more livable for its 45,600 workers by continuing its capital programs to improve traffic congestion relief and add pedestrian and cycling amenities.

The foundation is seeking $8.7 million in the 2017 bond to complete the redesign of the last of the 15 major street intersections in the Medical Center, the Louis Pasteur and Ewing Halsell intersection. The redesign calls for adding right and left turning lanes, improved drainage, wider sidewalks and safer pedestrian crossings, improved signage and wayfinding.

The MCA, which collects annual contributions of $1 million from each of its members to finance operations, already has paid $1.3 million for the design, engineering and right-of-way work on the project.

Henrich said that UTHSCA also will seek an additional $1 million in bond funds to add a crosswalk on Louis Pasteur between Floyd Curl Drive and Babcock Road.

University of Texas Health Science Center-San Antonio

Henrich is seeking $2.5 million in bond funds to create a Science Incubator that would give physicians and researchers a shared laboratory and research and development center to cross-pollinate and develop new procedures, therapies, drugs and other innovations. A center to allow such networking does not exist here, but has proven highly effective in other medical centers.

"I imagine this as a Geekdom for scientists," Nirenberg said after hearing the presentation.

"That's exactly it," Henrich said.

"If the discussion about the bond is to be transformative rather than just about infrastructure, we have to have these conversations" about such investments by the City, Nirenberg said.

Henrich said the right investments will generate double the jobs in the Medical Center over the next decade, resulting in a huge inflow of skilled and specialized researchers, practitioners, and supportive teams.

The University of Texas at San Antonio

Dr. George Perry, College of Sciences dean, gave one of the most interesting presentations, extolling UTSA's evolving culture thanks to the still-developing football program and the university's march toward Tier One status through academic and applied research, it's College of Engineering, entrepreneurial launches, and its growing national recognition.

"When I first came to the university, the students were wearing Longhorn t-shirts, " Perry recalled. "Not anymore. They are wearing the UTSA flag."

Beyond school spirit, the university has been recognized for having the best cybersecurity program in the nation, No. 3 for graduating Hispanics, and No. 4 among universities less than 50 years old. Headlines about multimillion dollar research grants are no longer unusual.

"I'm almost embarrassed to bring up athletics in this room," Perry said after listening to the presenters who preceded him. "This might not be the right time and place to talk about interest in funding a practice facility for the football program."

UTSA and UTHSCSA share something in common: Both receive far less student funding from the Texas Legislature on a per capita basis than they did a decade ago. As a consequence, both are turning to City Council to seek bond funding for projects that have clear economic development payoffs for San Antonio, projects that once upon a time would have been funded by the state. Today, cities can fund their own education and research expansion or risk falling behind.

In the 2012 bond, the City provided $3.1 million for infrastructure improvements around the UTSA Downtown Campus, and in the 2007 bond provided $5.2 million for UTSA's Main Campus Athletic Complex. Not many numbers were offered Wednesday, but UTSA listed priorities that could be funded in the 2017 bond, particularly major improvements to the streetscapes at the Main Campus North and South entrances, making the campus more bike and pedestrian-friendly.

After decades of expanding roads and highways to accommodate more and more vehicles, planners everywhere in the city are now trying to undo the damage and make the city's major economic centers where the jobs are concentrated more accommodating to people who want out of their cars and trucks. It's a central premise of the SA Tomorrow plan now being reviewed in draft by City Council, but it's already clear there simply are not enough dollars to meet the demand.

"Everything we are hearing today deserves funding," Krier told the presenters. "But you can add it up and see that even with a generous $750 million in the next bond, we already have double that, at least $1.5 billion in projects on the list." The real number will probably much higher by the time all requests are heard.

Perry put in his own bid for a UTSA Innovation Center and Accelerator that sounded a lot like UTHSCSA's Science Incubator. Both Perry and Henrich were quick to point to the close relationship between the two institutions and their commitment to not spend on redundancy, but more details will have to be presented in both instances for either center to win funding in such a competitive environment.

The San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce joined the other organizations in a discussion of legislative priorities for the City and their respective constituencies in 2017, but it was clear that the conversation among the parties is just getting started and probably will not take final shape until after the November elections when a Bexar County delegation with many new faces will take office.

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