Via Christi Health is in conversations that could bring more cancer trials to Wichita and help the University of Kansas Cancer Center strengthen its case to become nationally recognized.
The KU Cancer Center will submit an application a year from now to become a National Cancer Institute Comprehensive Cancer Center, a designation that can bring research funding and economic benefits.
All of the parties involved agree that NCI designation would benefit Kansas, and all are supportive of the effort.
The only disagreement seems to be the level of financial support expected of Via Christi.
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Via Christi is talking with the Cancer Center about membership in the Midwest Cancer Alliance. The alliance is a network of hospitals in Kansas and western Missouri that work with the Cancer Center for cancer trials, prevention and screening.
It also helps show the NCI an applicant's base of support.
"The NCI looks at the awarding of cancer centers on a regional basis," said Roy Jensen, director of the KU Cancer Center and CEO of the Midwest Cancer Alliance.
"Wichita is the largest city in the state of Kansas, and I think it's important that we have a partner — a full-fledged partner — in this initiative moving forward. We consider it a matter of great importance."
Via Christi was among the founders of the alliance in 2008 but is not among current members.
Cancer trials already take place in Wichita, through the Wichita Community Clinical Oncology Program. The trials are coordinated through the Cancer Center of Kansas, a physician group headed by oncologist Shaker Dakhil. The program's administrative base is at Via Christi Hospital on St. Francis.
Kevin Conlin, Via Christi's president and CEO, said Via Christi is not currently a member of the Midwest Cancer Alliance for two reasons:
* Many of the resources available to alliance members as a result of joining already are available in Wichita, through the Community Clinical Oncology Program.
* Membership requires a financial commitment, and Via Christi is talking with the alliance about how much that should be and how much credit Via Christi should get for what's already in place.
"What we hope to do is to finally get that settled so we can sign on the dotted line," Conlin said. That could happen within the next couple of weeks.
Jensen said membership ranges from $10,000 for small hospitals to $500,000 for the Partners Advisory Board level. That level is for larger hospitals or systems, such as Via Christi.
Jeff Reene, chief operating officer for the Midwest Cancer Alliance, said the group had talked several years ago with Wesley Medical Center about participating.
"At the time, Wesley did not have interest in exploring it further," he said. "We'd be happy to revisit that."
A Wesley spokesman said it would be willing to consider membership "if it will benefit our cancer patients and our physicians who care for them."
Reene said more than half the Partners Advisory Board membership fees are reinvested in infrastructure for clinical trials.
Much of that is in place in Wichita. Dakhil and his colleagues enroll patients in trials sponsored by Mayo Clinic, M.D. Anderson Cancer Center and others, including the KU Cancer Center.
Dakhil said he and his colleagues support the KU Cancer Center's efforts to win the NCI designation and will continue to participate in its trials as well as in others.
Smaller hospitals might get more benefits from Midwest Cancer Alliance membership, he said, if they don't already have infrastructure in place.
Via Christi's Conlin said the Wichita Community Clinical Oncology Program has won accolades nationally and is an "extremely active and vibrant and robust program."
Jensen said he thinks Via Christi and Wichita would get even more by participating in the Midwest Cancer Alliance, including increased access to early-phase trials.
Drugs usually undergo three phases of testing; the Community Clinical Oncology Program primarily conducts Phase II and Phase III trials. The early-phase trials are Phase I.
Gary Sherrer, chairman of the Midwest Cancer Alliance's advisory board, said NCI designation "is going to mean a great deal to the whole state. ... It's going to have huge economic impacts."
"When you put a statewide alliance together on something as important as cancer, it just doesn't seem right not to have Wichita be a part of that."
Conlin likewise said the NCI designation would be important, accelerating the pace of knowledge already being gained.
If the contribution of Via Christi's resources, capabilities and track record can help get that designation, "our responsibility is to do what we can to help," he said.