KU pharmacy professor calls for new cancer research institute

Tells Senate Commerce Committee that facility should be built in Lawrence, not at KU Med

0 | KU Medical Center, Legislature

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Val Stella, KU Distinguished Professor of Pharmaceutical Chemistry.

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— A pharmacy professor at the University of Kansas told a Senate panel today that his vision for the school includes a new research institute for cancer drug development.

"My dream is that in the not-too-distant future — hopefully in the next five years — I want to raise enough money to start the University of Kansas Institute for Basic and Applied Neuroscience and Cancer," said Val Stella, KU distinguished professor of pharmaceutical chemistry.

Stella appeared before the Senate Commerce Committee — along with Ken Audus, dean of the pharmacy school — to update legislators on the school's recent growth and plans for the next few years.

Stella said the new facility should be built on KU's West Campus in Lawrence rather than at the KU Medical Center in Kansas City, Kan.

"Because the basic research that leads to the drugs is not going to come from a medical center. They know how to treat cancer. They know how to look at some of the molecular targets of cancer. They're not capable of developing the drugs and the formulations that actually cure the cancer," Stella said.

"We will not be asking the Legislature for money for this," he said. "We're going to do this privately."

As part of his presentation, Stella detailed a half-dozen landmark drugs developed by or with contributions from KU faculty, including the cancer treatments Velcade, Nanotax and Lusedra.

Stella also pointed to the business incubator on West Campus, which he said demonstrated that companies are eager to invest in the local economy. The incubator's first building — called the Bioscience and Technology Business Center, or BTBC — was filled in 18 months, two and a half years ahead of schedule, he said. The second building, scheduled to open in mid-2013, already has enough tenants to fill more than half of the planned 30,000-square-foot space.

"We have nine companies waiting to get into that facility. They want to do it because they want access to KU faculty, they want access to KU students and they want to be on the bus route so the students they hire can get to this building quickly," Stella said.

"Right now the energy on West Campus is just palpable. You walk around and you feel the vibes. It's unbelievable," he said.

The first business center building was funded jointly by the city, county, KU, Lawrence Chamber of Commerce and Kansas Bioscience Authority, which together operate the business incubator. Stella said the bioscience authority funded about half of that project, but he did not expect it to be involved with funding for the second facility.

"I'm hoping that a significant amount of the funding for the second phase is going to come through a collaboration with the KU Endowment Association," Stella said.

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KU School of Pharmacy Dean Ken Audus, left, and professor Val Stella, right, during today's Senate Commerce Committee meeting. Also at the meeting was Sen. Vicki Schmidt, a Topeka Republican and pharmacist, and Paul Wagle, son of Sen. Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, who chairs the committee. Six years ago, Paul Wagle underwent a stem-cell transplant to treat leukemia and received a drug containing a compound developed in part at KU.

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In addition to the Lawrence business center, which has a counterpart in Kansas City that opened this fall, pharmacy dean Audus cited the school's recent expansion as part of what makes KU attractive to students and businesses. He said the school has brought in more than $20 million in federal research grants for two of the last three years — ranking fourth in the country in fiscal 2010.

"That funds research in cancer, heart disease, diabetes, neurodegenerative diseases, epilepsy and other diseases that are important in our society right now," Audus said. "Those research grants bring in personnel and resources to the state of Kansas."

After Stella and Audus spoke, committee members applauded the presentation.

"I wish we would have had this presentation about five or six years ago," said Sen. Julia Lynn, R-Olathe. "Those of us on the committee needed to see and hear some real-life examples."