The University of Kansas Cancer Center isn’t waiting to be designated as a National Cancer Institute Cancer Center to start acting one.
Since 2002, when it made getting the designation its goal, the 43-year-old KU Cancer Center has been on the track to provide stellar scientific research in cancer treatment and improve patient care in Kansas. In January, it opened a new 82,000-square-foot clinical-trial unit in Johnson County.
The NCI designation “represents the highest level of patient and clinical care,” said Roy Jensen, the KU Cancer Center director. It is considered the “gold standard” in cancer care.
“An NCI center is the primary crucible in which advances in cancer occur,” Jensen said. “If you want to be on the cutting edge of providing the highest care, you want to be one.”
Jensen was part of a leadership team at an NCI center in Tennessee before returning to his home state in 2004 to lead the KU Cancer Center. As the KU center was positioning itself as a leading research facility, it recruited other top scientists and doctors from other NCI centers.
The researchers have since put seven new drugs or new formulations of existing drugs into clinical trials. One is an ovarian cancer drug called Nanotex, which was reformulated from a common ovarian cancer drug to create a less toxic chemotherapy treatment. Two other trials involve “repurposing” — a sort of high-tech recycling — of drugs already on the market that may be effective in treating cancer, although that wasn’t what they were originally designed to treat.
To improve patient care across Kansas and part of Missouri, the center started a membership-based organization, the Midwest Cancer Alliance. The regional network of hospitals and clinics can tap into KU Cancer Center resources to bring cutting-edge clinical trials, prevention and screening tools, and continuing education into rural areas and regional medical centers. Via Christi Health and Promise Regional Medical Center in Hutchinson are part of the network.
“It’s not all about KU getting this designation,” Jensen said. The benefits of being an NCI center, which will mean more grant funding and more access to clinical trials, will transfer to patients statewide through the network.
“By working with our regional partners, we can help anyone in Kansas with cancer treatment,” Jensen said.
The alliance also provides a statewide patient navigator system, coordinated by registered nurse Carol Bush at KU Medical School-Wichita and often provided to rural areas by telemedicine. Services of a patient navigator may include arranging financial support, scheduling transportation to appointments and helping people with other resources.
The NCI designation also will mean Kansans won’t have to travel long distances to get top-notch care, Jensen said. The nearest NCI centers are in Omaha and St. Louis, with others being more than 300 miles away from the KU center. Kansas is one of 17 states without an NCI-designated center.
The KU Cancer Center’s pursuit of being an NCI center has already provided a boost in economic development. Officials say the cancer center’s growth in the past decade has created more than 1,000 jobs and it can create more as more funding comes in. An NCI designation will mean more research dollars coming into the state and the potential for more job growth.
In recent years it has received more than more than $50 million from the Kansas Bioscience Authority and several large gifts. Since fiscal year 2007, the Kansas Legislature has provided an annual $5 million appropriation. Johnson County implemented an eighth of a cent sales tax appropriation for the center, too.
In February, an NCI team will visit the KU Cancer Center in the Kansas City area as part of the designation process. KU officials expect to hear in May or June whether they’ve become the nation’s 67th NCI-designated center.