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NIU cancer center delayed by financing snag
By Jake Griffin | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 1/22/2009 10:03 AM | Updated: 1/22/2009 3:33 PM

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Northern Illinois University's proton therapy cancer treatment facility has hit another snag.

The collapse of the global bond market has made it impossible for university officials and the affiliated Northern Illinois Proton Treatment and Research Center LLC to secure funding to complete the $160 million project in West Chicago by the February 2010 deadline, said John Lewis, the project's executive director.

Officials from the Illinois Health Facilities Planning Board said failure to meet the deadline would violate the project's permit. However, it's unclear what ramifications that would have on the future of the project.

"I don't know what that means yet," said planning board executive secretary Jeffrey Mark.

Even Lewis is unsure what happens if the center isn't up and running in 13 months.

"There's no provision for an extension that we know of, and there's no specifications for what the consequences of not meeting the deadline are," he said.

There are currently only five proton therapy centers in the country. Proton therapy concentrates doses of radiation to an afflicted area unlike traditional radiation therapy where the entire body is exposed. Research indicates proton therapy cuts down on the debilitating side effects of traditional radiation treatments, speeding recovery of patients.

The state regulatory agency meets next week, but the status of the NIU proton therapy project is not expected to be on the agenda.

The project has about $8 million left in grant funding that can be used to continue paying for groundwork being done at the project site at the DuPage National Technology Park in West Chicago. Lewis' group was planning to finance 80 percent of the project through bond sales.

"We're not dead yet," Lewis said. "The project is certainly a viable project, and we have all intentions of moving forward; we just don't know what the impact of missing the deadline will be."

Lewis had expressed concerns in the fall about the project's financial viability when the planning board approved a permit for Central DuPage Hospital and ProCure Treatment Centers to build another proton therapy center in neighboring Warrenville. That is scheduled for completion in early 2011, but now could be done before the NIU center.

ProCure CEO Hadley Ford said financing was in place for his project before he had permission to build and that's why the state board eventually approved the proposal. However, he doesn't believe the NIU project will be killed because it's running behind schedule.

"These are exceptionally hard projects to finance even in a good economy," Ford said. "The board may be upset because they were promised up and down this wouldn't be a problem, but they should have known better because it's been a rough market for a long time."