Before Robert Hemenway retired as Kansas University’s chancellor this summer, he’d staked out becoming a National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center as the university’s No. 1 priority.
Though Hemenway has since left the chancellor’s office, his successor, Bernadette Gray-Little, maintains that priority and will likely see some of the most important steps in that battle taken while she leads KU.
“I agree that that is very important and that the faculty and staff see that as important,” she said. “I believe it’s the kind of thing that is important because of the funding that would be received, but it’s also important because of what it says about the maturity of your research program in that area.”
And while the university focuses on research that will lead to new drugs and treatments, the KU Hospital continues to deliver cancer care and is operating a newer outpatient cancer center in Westwood, formerly the home of Sprint, that is designed from the ground up to give cancer patients all the services they might need, in one place.
“It’s a tremendous asset for the community to have the Richard and Annette Bloch Cancer Care Pavilion,” said Jeff Wright, KU Hospital’s executive director for cancer services. “It means that physicians are able to discuss diagnosis and treatment options with each other. And for patients, you might have a patient come in to see an oncologist for GI cancer, and the next suite over is an office for a GI surgeon.”
Wright said the steps already taken, including a ballot initiative in November 2008, have generated excitement across the region, which could mean even better cancer care in the coming years.
“For the citizens to pass a tax to support the Johnson County research triangle shows the community is behind the effort and they understand, when you’re diagnosed with cancer, you don’t want to travel a long distance,” Wright said. “We want patients to be treated right here in Kansas City.”
In November, Johnson County voters approved a 1/8-cent sales tax to fund research and higher education. Part of that money was dedicated to building a new facility in Fairway where KU can consolidate clinical trials currently conducted in two locations into one location that is designed for that purpose. The existing locations include the main campus in Kansas City, Kan., and the cancer pavilion in Westwood.
The Hall Family Foundation agreed to donate the building to the university, contingent on the voters approving the sales tax. About $25 million in revenue from that sales tax could be used to renovate the office building and turn it into a location where medical treatments can be comfortably administered.
The building currently remains with the Hall Family Foundation while existing tenants are relocated, but sometime in early 2010 the building is expected to be transferred to the university. Once that happens, KU will be in a better position to increase the number of patients that are participating in the university’s phase one clinical trials — an important precursor to a successful application for NCI designation. Expansion of clinical trials to affiliates in Wichita, such as the Nanotax trial underway there now, will be another important step in that direction.
Nanotax is often cited as the perfect example of the sort of research that needs to go on for the university to achieve NCI designation. The drug was developed by scientists on KU’s Lawrence campus, brought to clinical trials at KU Hospital’s Westwood campus and then spread to other regional hospitals, in this case in Wichita.
In addition, the university must also increase the amount of NCI funding it receives. Right now, according to a KU Medical Center spokeswoman, the university receives about $5.8 million per year from the NCI. It needs that number to be closer to $11 million.
One way to increase that number is to recruit new physicians and researchers to KU, especially those who already receive funding from the NCI.
Wright said that’s one of the biggest benefits of even applying for NCI-designation.
“NCI designation, just the pursuit of NCI designation, gives us the opportunity to attract world-class academic physician-scientists,” he explained. “It also brings really leading edge clinical trials to the region.
KU is poised to apply for National Cancer Institute designation in just two years, in September 2011.
And then, sometime in spring 2012 or thereafter, the university should find out whether their NCI application has been approved and will receive the benefits, including access to some of the earliest clinical trials for patients, additional federal funding and — a benefit for all the rest of us — a projected $1 billion-plus in economic development.
“It’s an acknowledgment of what you have done, but I think most people see it as a sign that there is something bigger and better to come,” Gray-Little said.