Kansas City, Kan. — The Kansas University Medical Center plans to invest $800 million over the next 10 years in a bid to attract more life science research to the region.
The plan, to be unveiled Tuesday, will include hiring 244 researchers and adding almost 863,000 square feet to the center's Kansas City, Kan., campus, as well as some space at the university's main campus in Lawrence.
The center wants to more than quadruple its research grants from $88 million last year to $340 million by the end of 2016.
More importantly, university officials say the initiative will create the major academic entity around which an elite regional life science center can grow. The central institutions are viewed as vital for training workers and generating the early stage commercial products, ideas and startup businesses that fuel the rest of the region.
"We know what it will take to move KU's research enterprise to the next level," said Robert Hemenway, the university's chancellor. "The benefits will be profound. Advances in research will improve lives and a vigorous research effort absolutely can be an economic driver for the region."
The plan also would create new research and care centers with the help of Kansas City, Mo.-area partners, such as Saint Luke's Hospital, Children's Mercy Hospitals and Clinics, and the Stowers Institute for Medical Research.
Building a research base
University officials haven't said how they'll pay for the initiative other than through tax dollars and $100 million in funding from the Kansas Bioscience Authority and philanthropists.
They say their partners already have pledged seed money, and the region has shown support for civic enhancements such as arenas and entertainment districts.
Experts say Kansas City would benefit from such a drive for a central research hub.
"A prerequisite to building your efforts in the biosciences is having a strong enough research base," said Walt Plosila, vice president at Battelle Memorial Institute in Ohio and an expert on the development of regional technology centers. "Kansas City historically hasn't had a strong research base."
The region has research institutions, such as the medical center, the University of Missouri-Kansas City and Stowers. But those institutions aren't large enough to provide a foundation for a regional research economy, like that provided by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or University of Wisconsin.
Benno Schmidt, a former president of Yale University and head of a Kansas City Community Foundation task force, identified the lack of a premier research center as the region's biggest need. He encouraged the community to harness the medical center's growth with further expansion.
Schmidt said the medical center already has begun recruiting new researchers and is increasing its funding to attract federal grants, seeking to improve its standing.
"It would move it into the top 50 medical centers around the country, which is what we thought the goal ought to be for the region," he said.
The proposal would create a new center dedicated to transforming promising research into immediate treatment options, teaming up with expertise developed at hospitals and research centers on both sides of the state line.
"It is a way of taking advantage of the strong clinical strength of the hospitals, who can be very, very effective partners on the translational research front," Schmidt said.
For example, Children's Mercy is using $8.2 million of its own outside funding to unlock advances in how genetic differences help patients respond to certain drugs. The hospital said its researchers also could add to understanding in cancer and diabetes.
"Our greatest asset in terms of taking a discovery and turning it into an application is the huge pool of patients we serve," said Greg Kearns, the hospital's director of medical research.
Officials at Saint Luke's Health System said they also support the medical center's expansion and said they would be able to contribute their expertise in cardiovascular treatment.
Supporters of the initiative understand wrestling with such an ambitious proposal - and finding the money for it - will be daunting and require public support. But they say it will sell itself, given the potential benefits.
"As the region begins to realize what the pay-off for all this is going to be, the view will become one of it's a large investment with an even larger return," said Irvine Hockaday, chairman of the Kansas City Area Life Sciences Institute, who has been asking local businesses and organizations for help in establishing bioscience initiatives.
For example, studies have estimated the Stowers Institute could generate $1.4 billion in economic growth over the next 10 years, and a major cancer center at the university could create $1.3 billion.