State to fund Merck-Moffitt cancer project

The $15-million subsidy rounds out the $150-million venture's financial package.

Published February 23, 2007

TALLAHASSEE - Florida lawmakers on Thursday approved $15-million for a cancer research venture between drugmaker Merck & Co. and the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute in Tampa.

The unanimous vote, with no discussion by the 14-member Legislative Budget Commission, represents the last big piece of a financial package that includes a $28-million subsidy from Hillsborough County. It also includes $800,000 in cash from Tampa and land valued at $1.2-million.

"This is fabulous," said William Dalton, chief executive officer of the Moffitt center, named for a former House speaker from Tampa. "This means that we can launch the M2Gen project."

M2Gen is the name of the new for-profit Moffitt subsidiary that will study ways to tailor treatments for cancer patients based on the individual characteristics of tumors.

"What we will be able to do in the future is say that based on this person's molecular profile and clinical data, the best chance for a response and potential cure is this specific therapy," Dalton said. "It personalizes medicine, which is exactly where we want to go."

Dalton said the state money will be used to cover some of the startup costs for construction of a 50,000-square-foot building south of the University of South Florida campus.

He said the overall cost of the project is about $150-million. Merck has said it will invest about $95-million.

The state-funded cancer institute and the world's second-largest pharmaceutical company have pledged to create at least 165 new jobs paying an average annual salary of $80,000.

The Merck-Moffitt project is the latest in a series of government-subsidized medical research ventures in Florida, the largest of which is the Scripps Research Institute in Palm Beach County.

The Legislature's approval of $15-million in state incentives under the Quick Action Closing Fund program hit a snag last month.

Sen. Rudy Garcia, a Hialeah Republican, said there were too many unanswered questions about the project, and he demanded that Enterprise Florida, the state's business-promotion arm, provide more details.

Garcia, a leading supporter of state sales tax rebates for sports stadium renovations, said he was satisfied with the information he received.

"I don't think I'm doing my function, sitting here and just rubber-stamping everything that's been rubber-stamped before," Garcia said.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or 850 224-7263.