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Tuesday, Apr 24, 2018
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Steve Otto Columns

Otto: Helping doctor help children

There is a connection between Bobby Holton and Dr. Cameron Tebbi, although the two never met, and Holton — forever 16 — is deceased. Tebbi is professor of pediatrics and chairman of the Division of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology at the University of South Florida. He also is the director of pediatric hematology/oncology at Tampa General.

Tebbi is an internationally known expert in his field. I spent about a half-hour thumbing through his published works and global presentations looking for anything I might understand, and was completely lost — except for a clear recognition that Tebbi is The Man.

He came to USF in 1990 with a vision — not so much to cure childhood cancer as to prevent it.

His dreams included maybe one day building a hospital on the USF campus that would be dedicated to children with cancer. He still has that dream.

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Let me step back a minute to Bobby Holton, a 16-year-old boy who called me up more than 30 years ago, asking me to come out and see what was happening at USF.

Holton would die several weeks later, but not before ensuring I met Dr. Janifer Judisch, who was establishing a program at USF that not only treated childhood blood diseases but took a holistic approach with families confronted with the emotional and financial issues of a diagnosis, as well as the physical.

In those days the numbers were awful; most children who contracted leukemia and other blood diseases died. Today, those numbers are reversed.

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Tebbi is the successor to Judisch. Working with USF and Tampa General, his facilities at the Tampa Research Institute are on the forefront of finding a protein that ultimately could lead to a vaccine.

“It is going to happen,” he says, acknowledging that the actual vaccine is likely years down the road.

What I find striking about all of this is that Tebbi’s approach seems so isolated.

Tebbi is a quiet, modest man. We sat down last week at 220 East, a Davis Islands restaurant not far from his TGH offices.

But you could sense the emotions inside the man as he talked about the vast amounts of money going into research for a cure while almost nothing is spent on prevention, his ultimate goal.

I asked him who else is doing what his researchers are doing, and he shook his head, saying no one.

A lot of it, of course, is politics. I recall the battle retired pediatrician Lane France — along with Judisch and others — fought to build a children’s research hospital in the area.

Existing local hospitals fought the idea; it was squashed, and today, Tampa remains one of the few major metropolitan hospitals without such a facility.

Tebbi and others would love to see something like that go up at USF but, well ...

What is about to happen is the 10th annual Uncork the Wine tasting on June 22 at the downtown Tampa Club.

The event is put on by the Krewe of Zingaro, which has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for Tebbi’s research.

For more information, you can Google Children’s Cancer Research Group or call (813) 508-2134.

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