By Jim Siegel
Enquirer Columbus Bureau
Sen. George Voinovich on Saturday said he was impressed with the progress made in less than a year since he helped secure a $9.6 million grant allowing the University of Cincinnati to partner with Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center on breast cancer research.
Voinovich and his wife, Janet, who for years has made breast cancer a top focus since losing two close friends to the disease, stopped at UC Saturday as part of his three-day campaign kickoff bus tour around the state. Voinovich, running for re-election against state Sen. Eric Fingerhut of Cleveland, concludes his tour today.
"I said to Janet, 'They've been moving fast,'" Voinovich told the audience of about 35 university officials and researchers at the UC Cancer Center.
Dr. Sue Heffelfinger, associate professor of pathology at UC, said the study that will include 550 girls between the ages of six and seven would have never been possible without the seven-year federal grant. The university and medical center are examining the link between breast cancer and the fact that girls are reaching puberty at an earlier age.
The study is looking at environmental chemical exposure, diet, exercise and, most importantly, obesity levels to determine what is causing girls to mature years earlier than they used to. Other aspects of the project include community outreach and laboratory studies of how cell and gene interactions can reduce the side effects of chemotherapy.
"We're very excited about what's going to be happening over the next six years," Heffelfinger said.
Janet Voinovich, who was instrumental in getting the third Thursday in October recognized as Ohio Mammography Day, called researchers unsung heroes in the efforts to find effective treatment and a cure for the disease. "I'm just blown away hearing about the children and how at such an early age we can start to see and determine what might be affecting them throughout their lives," she said.
The stop, where Voinovich got a look at some high-tech laboratory equipment, including a $500,000 computer and a $360,000 microscope, also gave him the opportunity to focus on one of his priority issues - slowing down skyrocketing medical malpractice insurance rates through federal tort reform that caps jury awards.
Voinovich said he was amazed the cost of malpractice insurance for the university hospital has increased 422 percent since 2000. Graduates also are not staying in the state to do their residencies because of the cost, he said.
"We really have a crisis in this state and in this country," he said. "If we don't act fairly soon, I think we're going to do irreparable damage to the medical profession in our country."
Fingerhut said he agrees there is a crisis in medical malpractice insurance rates, and he would support jury award caps if it were guaranteed the savings would be passed onto doctors, rather than kept by insurance companies. He said it's more important to fix the problem on the front end of the court system, using a system of arbitration to reduce frivolous lawsuits.
"George Voinovich personally had control over this issue for eight years in Ohio," Fingerhut said, referring to Voinovich's time as Ohio governor in the 1990s. "But the situation was worse when he left than when he started."
Voinovich signed a tort reform bill into law in the mid-1990s, but the Ohio Supreme Court struck it down as unconstitutional.
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