Kansas University aims to spend up to $350 million to build a top-rate cancer program and be in the running for a coveted federal designation as a comprehensive cancer center.
"It is a major priority of the university," KU Chancellor Robert Hemenway said.
The cancer center designation would make KU's Lawrence and medical center campuses eligible for millions of dollars in federal funding and clinical trials that could bring cutting-edge drugs to area cancer patients.
Should the KU initiative succeed, "people in this region would have access to the best cancer care available," said Roy Jensen, director of the Kansas Masonic Cancer Research Institute. The institute is the cancer research arm of KU Medical Center. Jensen is a leader in the university's initiative.
The initiative will draw on many arms of the university and involve hospitals across the state and region, said Paul Carttar, KU's executive vice chancellor for external affairs.
KU will not work alone, but will share clinical trials with participating hospitals to bring new drugs and treatments to more patients, Carttar said. He said the initiative would mean public health benefits for the state while promoting economic development with new technologies and therapies.
Jensen said a cancer center designation would help build research infrastructure for cancer research and other disciplines.
He said Institute officials are in the process of recruiting a deputy director for clinical affairs at the Institute. Once that person is hired, the goal is to submit within two years an application for the designation.
"Most importantly, it takes an overall commitment from the university to make this happen," Jensen said.
About $30 million already has been invested for researchers and lab facilities, he said, but the initiative to be a top cancer center would require a total investment of $300-$350 million. That would pay for additional staff, as well as a building on the Lawrence campus to centralize research and a building on the KU Medical Center campus to consolidate activities there.
"What we have to do is demonstrate to people that this is an achievable goal," Hemenway said. "There are people all over the country and all over the world who want to be a part of an effort like this. There's a broad stage for possibilities here. That's really what we're trying to tap into."
Hemenway said there are many different possibilities for funding the initial investment, including federal and private funds.
"We're going to be looking for resources everywhere that we can to try to accomplish this," he said.
Carttar said the $350 million is what it would take to build a successful cancer center, not just receive NCI designation. He said NCI designation "is just a step along the way."
There will be competition. Jensen said the goal of the National Cancer Institute, an arm of the National Institute of Health, is to develop five additional cancer centers in the next five to seven years. He said KU may compete with institutions such as the University of Miami, and Stanford and Emory universities.
He said KU can capitalize on such strengths as the drug development in the School of Pharmacy and regional assets such as the Stowers Institute for Medical Research.
"It's very clear that this is not just a university effort," Jensen said. "It's going to have to be an entire region that gets behind this idea."
Pat McCormick, program director with the Cancer Centers Program of the National Cancer Institute, said among other qualifications, an institution must have a substantial research base, a solid group of clinical researchers, institutional support and demonstrated collaborative capabilities.
She wouldn't say how many additional institutions could be given the designation in the future.
"Certainly, there is room for growth," she said.
The American Cancer Society estimates that nearly 13,000 Kansans will be diagnosed with cancer this year.
Jensen pointed to work on a new cancer drug as one example of cancer research currently under way at KU.
KU Medical Center researchers, in cooperation with the Lawrence company CritiTech Inc., are about to begin clinical trials of Nanotax, a new formulation of Taxol, which is a well-known drug used to treat breast and ovarian cancers.
CritiTech was spun off from the Higuchi Biosciences Center at KU, where the technology it uses was first applied.
Katherine Roby, research associate professor of anatomy and cell biology, said researchers are seeking FDA approval for phase one testing.
Roby said the drug has reduced side effects for chemotherapy patients.
In other work, Kristi Neufeld, an assistant professor in the department of molecular biosciences, is investigating a tumor suppressor protein in an effort to better understand its functions and relation to colo-rectal cancer.
She said she hopes KU receives NCI designation because that would attract more researchers, increasing opportunities for collaboration.
"Having more colleagues around to bounce ideas off of and do research with is always a good thing," she said.
- Staff writer Sophia Maines can be reached at 832-7155.