Roy Jensen’s countdown clock has almost reached zero.
The clock sits in the Kansas University Cancer Center director’s office, counting down the days to Sept. 25. It’s been ticking for years, starting at more than 1,000 days.
In an interview in July, Jensen showed off the clock, which then read 64 days, 12 hours, 35 minutes, 14 seconds.
KU’s Cancer Center is pursuing designation as a National Cancer Institute, an effort that would be a boon for the local economy and for cancer patients looking for the latest treatments closer to home.
When Jensen spoke, the grant application was on its third draft. He said several external groups had reviewed the document. KU’s official External Advisory Board recommended that KU go ahead with its application in September.
At this late stage, the application is mostly in place. It’s getting some last-minute tweaks, revisions and other clarifications.
“One of the major issues is always around making sure you tell them exactly what they need to know according to the guidelines,” he said.
In order to boost KU’s chances, the center has brought in several top researchers with accompanying NCI funding.
One of those researchers is Shrikant Anant, who came to KU to serve as associate director for prevention and control. He came to KU from the University of Oklahoma Cancer Institute. He said he came to help KU achieve designation.
“It was shocking to me that a city of this size didn’t have a cancer center,” Anant said.
He said patients have to travel long distances to get good care now, and that shouldn’t be the case.
“We need to have them here,” he said.
The effort has also raised a sizable amount of charitable support. When Jensen spoke, the cancer center was still a few million short of its $62 million private fundraising goal announced in December 2009. However, he said he expected that the cancer center would be able to announce it had met that target when it applied for designation in September.
Jensen’s job requires multiple skills. He has to speak the language of science, to lead the team of scientists pursuing new research and clinical trials. But he also has to be able to translate those efforts into terms that most people can easily understand to sell the effort regionally.
The cancer center estimates the total regional economic impact of its efforts from 2006-2010 at $453.4 million. It has created 352 jobs at KU.
Jensen said after the cancer center submits its application, its staff will start preparing for an NCI site visit that could come in January or February. Then, the NCI will make its decision. That decision would likely come in the months following the site visit, but a number of factors can delay the announcement, Jensen said, including the federal budget situation in Washington, D.C.
If KU fails, the effort will not have been entirely in vain, and the university can try again. Jensen said the university would be provided with a list of things to improve if the application isn’t approved. KU would likely try to apply again, but likely not for at least another couple of years, he said.
One of the key factors in KU’s application is its drug discovery and development program, which they tout as one of the strongest in the country, based on feedback they get from the NCI.
“We’re supporting all aspects of the cancer center,” said Scott Weir, director of the KU Cancer Center’s Office of Therapeutics Discovery and Development, who leads KU’s drug efforts.
These efforts have brought six drugs to market: Nanothecin, Nanotax, Captisol Melphalan, Ciclopirox, SR-13668 and Auranofin. The drugs come from a variety of backgrounds, he said. The Auranofin project, for example, involved an anti-arthritis drug that is now being tested to fight leukemia.
“This is one of the key differentiators of our program,” Weir said.
Jensen said he’s been appreciative of university leadership, including former chancellor Robert Hemenway, who identified achieving NCI designation as the university’s top priority.
“Usually those kinds of statements get them in a bunch of trouble,” Jensen said. “It was a pretty bold move to come out so clearly.”