tampabay.com

Star puts her glow in this fight for a cure

By ERNEST HOOPER
Published August 11, 2007


The presence of television personality Leeza Gibbons drew me to the Johnnie B. Byrd Sr. Alzheimer's Center and Research Institute Thursday, but a potentially more alarming state budget issue captured my attention.

And I couldn't find Howard Troxler.

Gibbons radiated praise as she toured the new seven-story facility, which is weeks away from its grand opening. Her glow couldn't blot out the fact, however, that the Byrd Center is facing a possible state budget cut officials have labeled a "death blow."

With the state facing a $1.5-billion deficit, departments had to offer cuts the legislature can consider in a special session next month. The Department of Elder Affairs suggested a $10-million cut of the center's annual $15-million state allotment.

For those of you nonmath majors, that's two-thirds of the center's state funding.

Ouch.

In a media release, the center said the proposed cut would result in the loss of 50 jobs and 12 clinical trials.

"We are just reaching a point that as a research community we have enough resources coming together to believe we might soon be able to prevent and cure one of the worst diseases faced by our aging population," director Huntington Potter said. "We simply can't afford to lose funding now."

The Elder Affairs staff says that in cutting the budget, it had to place services above research facilities.

"It's not a good time for any of us but we're trying to make the best of direct consumer services and minimizing the impact," said Deputy Elder Affairs Secretary Chuck Corley.

Of course, the institute has long been something of a political football. Former state House Speaker Johnnie B. Byrd Jr. proposed the center in the wake of his father's death, but his critics argued the state already had underfunded research efforts.

Byrd's influence, however, pushed the center's approval through the Legislature. Along the way, feelings were fractured, and the center's funding has been a bone of contention in Tallahassee ever since.

At some point, however, the center's mission has to be separated from its controversial beginnings. The devotion of the center's employees is impressive, and needs to be nurtured at least until the center gains greater independence through grants and other funding sources.

Everyone in the state should absorb some cuts, but two-thirds of their state funds?

Gibbons, whose grandmother died of Alzheimer's and whose mother has been diagnosed with the disease, has her own foundation that provides resource centers across the country for newly diagnosed patients and their caregivers.

She didn't know about the potential budget shortfall as a trail of reporters, camera crews, board members and officials followed her around the center. Wearing a tailor-made lab coat, she engaged the researchers and lab technicians in discussion.

The reporters got to hear about the goals that fuel these young scientists' efforts to find a cure. It wasn't the exposure that mattered to them, however, it was Gibbons' genuine interest.

"I feel like a groupie talking to them," Gibbons said. "They're tying to find a cure, and it's important we support all who are trying to do that."

I just hope the folks in Tallahassee feel the same way.

That's all I'm saying.