KU Cancer Center wins national designation

Official recognition as regional hub for treatment and research will help yield more government, philanthropic aid.

07/12/2012 12:00 AM

08/08/2014 10:11 AM

Years of work and millions of dollars have paid off for the University of Kansas Cancer Center.

The KU center is now officially the 67th cancer center designated by the National Cancer Institute, joining such established names in cancer research and treatment as M.D. Anderson and Memorial Sloan-Kettering.

The designation, announced at a news conference by U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, comes with a grant of almost $7 million over five years. Most of that money will be used to buy advanced technology to be shared by the cancer center’s laboratories. The money also will go toward recruiting staff and conducting pilot research studies to test new ideas.

NCI designation is expected to bring in millions of additional dollars in federal grants and to attract research money from private organizations such as the American Cancer Society. It also will better position KU as a test site for new cancer therapies.

Designation as a top cancer center has been considered crucial to Kansas City civic leaders’ hopes for turning the region into a hub of life sciences research and business.

Among the dignitaries on hand for Thursday’s announcement was U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas, who said the achievement would allow young people in Kansas to pursue careers in fields that in the past required them to move to other states.

It also will provide patients with new opportunities for “care and treatment much closer to home,” Moran said.

Until now, the nearest designated centers to Kansas City had been in St. Louis; Omaha, Neb.; Iowa City, Iowa; and the Denver area.

Moran said KU was among three cancer centers that had been vying for NCI designation, but the only one to receive it during this round of applications. KU filed its application in September.

The announcement, which leaked unofficially last month in a Facebook posting by U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, culminates a decade of work by KU, the Kansas City civic and medical communities, benefactors and government leaders.

Beginning with a $20 million commitment in 2003 by the Kansas Masonic Foundation, KU has raised hundreds of millions of private and government dollars for the cancer center, which is based at KU Medical Center in Kansas City, Kan. Among the major funding sources:

• More than $107 million in private donations.
• More than $50 million from the Kansas Bioscience Authority.
• $5 million per year from the state of Kansas.
• $5 million per year from the Johnson County Education Research Triangle sales tax.

The money has been used to open laboratories and patient treatment facilities, and to recruit the top-notch scientists that the NCI expects at a designated center.

“We are now part of this elite group,” said cancer center director Roy Jensen, an expert on the genetics of breast cancer who was lured back to his home state from Vanderbilt University in Nashville to lead the drive for NCI designation.

Jensen said the KU Cancer Center already was functioning at the level of an NCI center. Its areas of excellence include blood cancers and bone marrow transplantation, breast cancer, head and neck cancer, and prostate cancer.

KU’s next step is to position itself over the next few years to become an NCI comprehensive cancer center. Jensen called that the “absolute elite,” the “super carrier class” of cancer centers that have large programs in cancer prevention, community outreach and education. Forty-one of the NCI designated centers have that distinction.

“Why would we not want to be at that level?” Jensen said.

In making the NCI announcement, Sebelius said designated centers served as engines of scientific discovery. Nearly every new cancer drug of the past decade has come from these centers, she said.

Over the next five years the KU Cancer Center will receive nearly $1.4 million per year from NCI. After that, it will be eligible for continued NCI funds.

And KU can expect much more. Scientists at designated centers garner more than 70 percent of NCI’s $2 billion budget for research projects. One report found that NCI designation leads to as much as a 30-fold increase in centers’ funds from philanthropy and research grants outside NCI.

For patients, the designation will make KU eligible for research studies on new treatments that are open only to NCI centers. KU also will be more attractive to drug companies that often prefer to use designated centers as test sites.

Among the individuals and groups Jensen credited for KU’s successful application to NCI:

• Kansas Masons, who “probably believed in us before we were worth believing in.”
• Former KU chancellor Robert Hemenway and former KU Medical Center executive vice chancellor Barbara Atkinson for raising the medical center’s profile as an academic research institution.
• The Kansas Bioscience Authority, which committed about $50 million to the cancer center.
• The region’s politicians and civic and philanthropic communities. Even during the recession, “they didn’t skip a beat,” Jensen said.

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