Recently, Kansas University Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little phoned the Kansas Bioscience Authority to discuss an idea.
The KU Cancer Center has less than a year before its application is due to the National Cancer Institute, which decides whether the Kansas center will be an NCI-designated facility. In that time, the cancer center has to recruit expert researchers who come with millions of dollars in federal grant funding.
“There is not enough time for the medical center in that kind of typical hiring pattern to bring that many people on board at one time,” Gray-Little said.
So KU proposed that the school hire in a cluster the top leadership for the KU Cancer Center and to entice them with funds from the KBA.
“Part of the benefit is their combined talents bring something that, hiring one person at a time over several months or over a few years, just doesn’t happen,” Gray-Little said.
This week, Gray-Little watched as the KBA board approved spending $9 million over five years for the salaries, staff and equipment of five researchers who would lead the cancer center.
Building a leadership team is key to KU Cancer Center’s quest to gain designation as an NCI-designated facility, a kind of seal of approval for cancer care and research.
“Recruitment this past year was an absolutely mission-critical milestone,” KU Cancer Center Director Roy Jensen said. “If we didn’t bring these people in, if we didn’t fill those positions and if we didn’t fill them with people who have an excellent funding portfolio and excellent track records … we would have been in real trouble.”
With the KBA’s $9 million, KU will be able to fill five key leadership positions, bring in about 25 additional researchers and spend $2.9 million on new equipment.
At the center of the leadership team will be Kapil Bhalla, who was a former professor at the Medical College of Georgia and head of the college’s cancer center. Bhalla, who will be KU Cancer Center’s new deputy director, specializes in personalized medicines and targeted therapy approaches in cancer cures, an area the cancer center plans to emphasize.
Having the right leaders in place is essential if KU is to move toward an NCI cancer center, said George Weiner, director of the University of Iowa’s Comprehensive Cancer Center and chairman of KU Cancer Center’s External Advisory Board.
Last year, Weiner praised the cancer center’s progress but cautioned them to be flexible in their timeline to submit an application to the NCI.
Even with the impressive list of new researchers coming to the cancer center, Weiner said the NCI wants to see that the team of leaders gel and can work together.
“That is why the advice I’m giving them is that you are absolutely on the right track, you’re bringing the right people in, you are making great progress, but be flexible with respect to the timing of this.”
If KU Cancer Center’s application doesn’t get accepted in the first round, Weiner said it could take 18 months to two years before officials could apply again.
“You don’t want to go in nine months too soon when, if you would have been able to wait a little bit, you would have been able to present much more strongly,” Weiner said.
Now, the KU Cancer Center has a September 2011 deadline for submitting its application.
“We are on target, and we have to keep working just as hard as we have been working,” Gray-Little said of the 2011 deadline.
One promising sign is the boost in NCI funding the new recruits bring to the cancer center. Combined, the researchers receive about $1.7 million in NCI grants each year. That amount brings the KU Cancer Center’s total funding from the NCI to just under $12 million.
“Frankly, it’s more than we thought we could reasonably increase our funding by,” Jensen said. “Our expectation was by the time the grant went in a year from now we’d hoped … to have $11 million.”