As Kansas University administrators float plans for a major cancer initiative, Kathy Roby works inside her ground-floor laboratory in the Lied Building at KU Medical Center.
The work is slow and precise. Roby and her team take new drug compounds and test their ability to fight cancer cells in petri dishes.
"If we can find a way to help people with cancer, that's great," said Roby, research associate professor in the anatomy and cell biology department. "Finding new drug and new drug targets is really the future of cancer treatment. We're working on that."
KU has begun an ambitious plan to gain federal comprehensive cancer center designation within a decade. The move would open up KU to new funding and make cutting-edge treatments available to area patients. It also would put Kansas on the map for cancer research and treatment.
But it will cost money. Organizers estimate that the goal will require about $331 million in new investment.
Fundraising efforts are underway. And as KU administrators and Chancellor Robert Hemenway make their case publicly, researchers and staff behind the scenes are toiling on the same mission.
Roby has developed Nanotax, a new form of the cancer drug Taxol. Among its improvements, Nanotax has been found to have lower toxicity, which means it kills fewer healthy cells than Taxol. Lowering the toxicity means doctors can increase chemotherapy and destroy more cancer cells without unwanted side effects.
Working to a cure
Hear Kathy Roby discuss how researchers at KU are testing new drugs to help fight cancer. See audio slideshow Â»
Roby said Nanotax is moving toward phase-one clinical trials.
"We're really just waiting for the final approval from the FDA to initiate those trials in patients," she said.
On the Lawrence campus, researcher Kristi Neufeld is working to solve a different puzzle.
The assistant professor of molecular biosciences is tackling work connected to colon cancer.
Neufeld and her team are working to better understand a tumor-suppressor protein important for the understanding of colorectal cancers.
If scientists understand the protein, they'll better understand the disease and how to treat it. Though Neufeld doesn't work with patients in a hospital, helping others afflicted by cancer is a driving force, she said.
"We all believe that we're helping the general understanding about cells that could lead to therapeutics - better therapeutics and diagnostics," she said.
Currently, 116 researchers are working on some type of research connected to KU's cancer goals, said Roy Jensen, director of the cancer center. But some researchers may not focus all of their work on cancer-related research.
"We clearly are focused on growing that number considerably and also on recruiting investigators that are highly focused in cancer," Jensen said.
In the next decade, the goal is to add an additional 170 funded researchers, he said.
Organizers have disbursed seed money to help researchers write grant proposals and get projects going. The seed money is $35,000 per project. Five new awards will be made this week, Jensen said.
And new collaborations are beginning. Scott Weir, director of KU Cancer Center's Office of Therapeutics, Discovery and Development, was promoted into the newly created position in March. His role includes bringing researchers together in collaborative projects.
Weir said five drug discovery projects - pairing of researchers to discover drugs - have been identified since March.
Roby said collaborations are essential. She said researchers are busy, and it helps to have someone to assist creating the links.
"You just cannot do biomedical research in a vacuum," she said. "In order for my research program to move forward, I have to be able to collaborate with people."