Obtaining designation as a National Cancer Institute is a top priority for Kansas University. Millions of dollars are going toward this goal, which has the potential to save the lives of Kansans.
The road to achieving National Cancer Institute designation is often decades in the making and paved with millions of dollars spent on new faculty and buildings.
For the Hollings Cancer Institute at the University of South Carolina, it was a goal from the center’s inception and one that wasn’t reached for 15 years. For the Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center in Iowa City, the designation took three tries.
“It’s a long, involved process that is very time-consuming,” said George Weiner, the Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center director.
The Kansas University Cancer Center has embarked upon such a journey. The deadline to turn in the 1,000-page application is about 850 days away.
Once an application is submitted to the NCI, a designation is far from a sure thing, said Linda Weiss, NCI’s director of the Cancer Centers Program. Some institutes are more ready than others for the designation, with several new applications failing in the past few years.
“I think the standard has gotten progressively higher as the program has matured,” Weiss said.
Oftentimes, new cancer centers tend to do too much too soon. So far, Weiss said, KU is taking a very “measured and thoughtful approach” to its NCI designation application.
“We certainly feel there’s promise, and it really depends on what their research base looks like as of the time they apply,” Weiss said.
One of KU Cancer Center’s major challenges will be attracting world-class cancer researchers, who will bring with them the grant funding needed to prove the institute is worthy of the NCI designation.
“Essentially, the bigger that number is, the more robust that application is and the better chance that you actually have to achieve designation,” KU Cancer Center Director Roy Jensen said.
According to a 10-year business plan developed in 2006, the KU Cancer Center estimated that to build a NCI comprehensive cancer center, it will require an almost doubling of research funding to $80 million, an increase in research members from 116 to 170 and an expansion of laboratory space from 45,000 to 440,000 square feet.
To accomplish such a feat would require $220 million in faculty expenses and another $184 million in building improvements over the next 10 years. An update to that plan is scheduled to be released in the next few weeks.
For the Hollings Cancer Institute, recruiting top-level administrators was key to garnering the designation, Assistant Director of Administration Andrea Brown said. And depending on how many faculty the administrators brought with them, packages for those leadership positions ran from $1 million to $2.5 million.
The pool is small for attracting that level of talent and grant funding, Brown said. At the Hollings Cancer Institute, candidates were enticed by the center’s Charleston location and proximity to the ocean. And some liked the ability to be able to build a program from the ground up.
“It’s a very competitive process and it’s also a long process,” Brown said.
One of the major attractions of seeking NCI designation is the extra money that comes with it, in particular the Cancer Center Support Grant, and the access to research and expertise at other NCI-designated institutes.
Gearing up for the designation can be a challenge because centers have to operate as an NCI center before getting the funding to go with it, Weiner said.
For both the Hollings Cancer Institute and the Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center, the effort paid off.
In the almost 10 years since the Holden center earned the designation, it has been able to hire researchers who have made advances in studying ways to prevent cancer and new medicines to treat it.
“And more importantly, we continue to see improvements in cancer outcomes,” Weiner said.
At the Hollings institute, the number of patients has increased and recruiting scientists and faculty has been easier since the center earned the NCI designation this spring, Brown said.
Before coming to work at the cancer center in South Carolina, Brown was at the Siteman Cancer Center at the Washington University School of Medicine. The day after the St. Louis cancer center received NCI designation, phone lines were full from patient inquiries. Clinical revenue can see a 30 percent increase with the designation, Brown said.
“Patients who may have gone somewhere else will now go to the NCI cancer center that is closer to them,” Brown said.
This isn’t the first time the KU Cancer Center has applied for NCI designation. It’s happened three times before in the 1970s and early 1980s.
Ron Stephens, the former director of clinical oncology at the KU Med Center and now director of oncology at Lawrence Memorial Hospital, said the failures were in part due to political problems and a lack of coordination of basic sciences. He sees the presence of other bioscience efforts in the region and local philanthropic support as promising signs.
“I’m a little more optimistic this try,” he said. “But I don’t think it is easy given our economic climate.”