It seemed like there weren’t enough adjectives on July 12 as the Kansas University Cancer Center celebrated its designation from the National Cancer Institute, the end of a nearly decadelong process.
Steven Stites, acting executive vice chancellor at KU Medical Center, called it a “great” and “monumental” achievement. U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., called it the beginning of a “tremendous transformation.”
“What a red-letter day for the University of Kansas and the state of Kansas,” said Steve Morris, president of the Kansas Senate.
They were all celebrating that the center had been named the nation’s 67th nationally designated center. That’s an achievement that took nearly 10 years of work (or 38, if you count all the way back to KU’s initial denial from the NCI in 1974), and an investment of more than $350 million. The mood at the ceremony in Kansas City, Kan., was one of celebration.
Lots of politicians congratulated KU on the news, including U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, who delivered a speech on the Senate floor in Washington, D.C.
“I daresay there’s not one among us who has not been touched in one way or another by this terrible disease,” said Mike O’Neal, speaker of the Kansas House, who lost his mother to cancer.
Moran said that even for Kansans who had no idea what the letters “N-C-I” stood for, this summer’s news would likely have an impact on them nonetheless.
“It means a tremendous transformation in who we are as Kansans,” he said. “It changes the character of who we are as a state.”
Political and university figures alike had high praise for those involved in the effort but particularly so for Roy Jensen, director of the KU Cancer Center.
“I hope that everyone in this room knows how lucky we are to have Roy Jensen,” said Bob Page, CEO of KU Hospital. “I don’t believe we would be here today without his leadership.”
For his part, Jensen thanked his family for their sacrifices and the many supporters of the effort, including donors, administrators and other leaders.
Speaking later to the Kansas Bioscience Authority, Jensen said the KU Cancer Center will continue its move toward “personalized medicine.” The days of one drug or combination of drugs being used to fight all cases of breast cancer are over, he said. Drugs will be specifically tailored for each patient.
“It’s about the right drug at the right time to the right patient at the right cost,” he said.
Before KU’s approval, the region was in something of a “doughnut hole” of areas served by NCI-designated cancer centers, with the closest one in Omaha, Neb. That meant patients were in the position of having to drive hours for treatment. Now, through the Midwest Cancer Alliance, new drugs, treatments and trials will be available throughout the state.
The Midwest Cancer Alliance is a network of hospitals and researchers that stretches throughout the region. Jensen said it’s not a common alliance.
“Not too many Venn diagrams contain both the Goodland Regional Medical Center and the Stowers Institute for Medical Research,” he told the KBA. “Ours does.”
Up next for the cancer center is pursuing designation as a comprehensive cancer center, which is the highest level of designation possible from the NCI. Jensen said such a designation would basically mean the cancer center would do everything it does now but add more components on top of that, including population-based research and community outreach efforts to underserved populations. The timeline is a little tighter, Jensen said
“It took us eight years to get to where we are today,” he said. “In essence, we have three years to get to comprehensive status.”
Still, he said, the center is ready to move forward, and it’s come quite a long way already.
“If ever there’s a topic that needs to have a book written about it,” he said. “It would be quite a book.”
— Higher education reporter Andy Hyland can be reached at 832-6388.