After seven-plus years of work and some $350 million in investment, the University of Kansas Medical Center today officially pulled the trigger on its application for accreditation by the National Cancer Institute, the gold standard for cancer research facilities.
A public event marking the milestone was held here today. Among those attending were Gov. Sam Brownback, Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer and Congressman Kevin Yoder, whose district includes the KU Medical Center.
Dr. Roy Jensen, who was hired by KU to oversee the application process in 2004, told the crowd of about 100 people that finally submitting the application felt like finishing an endurance race.
"Come to find out, it's actually a triathlon," he said. "Now, is the swimming-with-the-sharks phase. And that comes to fruition on Feb. 22, 2012, when our site visit from the National Cancer Institute will be here."
On that date, a group of NCI officials and peer scientists from around the country are scheduled to review the KU Cancer Center's operations for several days.
KPR story: KU Cancer Center takes the next step
Jensen has been a part of the NCI application process many times, both as a peer reviewer and as an applicant. He successfully guided Vanderbilt to NCI designation in 2004.
Site-visit critiques last hours into the night and examiners will dissect everything KU has done in the last seven years to position itself as an NCI-ready institution, Jensen told KHI News Service ahead of today's event.
"Basically what happens is that the whole cancer center just gets ripped to shreds. They focus only on the negatives," Jensen said. "By the end of the evening, everybody's wondering why they're there and...why would anybody think these guys deserve to have a cancer center."
But that's to be expected, he said.
"These grants are for a significant amount of money and you need to be able to demonstrate that you deserve to be in the club," he said.<a name="continued"></a>
If awarded, the NCI designation would mean Kansans could receive federally recognized, top-tier treatment for cancer without flying or driving out of state. Currently, the closest NCI cancer center is in Omaha, Neb.
NCI designation would also mean KU would become eligible for millions of dollars in grants to improve its cancer center, as well as access to clinical trials only open to NCI centers.
If NCI denies the application — KU applied in the mid 1970s but was rejected — it would be a disappointment but it would not derail KU's primary goal, Jensen said.
"This application is not necessarily about getting NCI designated. It's about building a great cancer center," he said. "We're committed to getting better along the entire front of research and clinical care and outreach. At some point, I'm quite certain we will be designated, I just can't guarantee when it's going to be. I certainly hope it's going to be on this round."
Brownback said that the work KU has done with hopes of gaining NCI designation can already be considered a success.
"This is a tough process and it is a difficult one, but you can't even get into the game unless you get built to a certain level. And we're getting into the game," Brownback said. "With the intense effort of the people in this room and those like us, we can make cancer a chronic disease and not a terminal one."
Seeking the NCI stamp
In the years since he came to KU, Jensen has recruited more than a dozen leading scientists, expanded research capacity and has built state-of-the-art laboratory space to meet the NCI’s criteria, including a Phase I clinical trial facility scheduled to open in January. He spearheaded a capital campaign that raised $62 million from private donors.
"In many respects, the site visit is a referendum on my leadership capabilities and the decisions I've made over the past few years to put the application together," Jensen said.
That's also when KU will get its first indications of how well its application has been received.
After the visit, an NCI committee will give KU's Cancer Center a score, likely sometime in March, which will be referred to National Cancer Advisory Panel. That group of presidential appointees ultimately will decide whether to grant KU the designation.
Jensen said he was confident the application would be reviewed strictly on its merits.
Lobbying NCI officials would be counterproductive and not something KU is interested in doing anyway, he said.
"There's no shortcuts, no cutting corners. If you're going to be a member of that club, you're going to have to step up your game and be worthy of the designation," he said.
But the political fight in Washington, D.C. over the federal budget could indirectly influence the outcome.
"Another layer on top of that is the national debate around discretionary federal spending — (such as) funding for the (National Institutes of Health) and NCI — and of course election politics. So, there are a lot of variables, a lot of parameters, a lot of things beyond our control."
Jensen said he would be getting on a plane to Washington today where he will discuss with policymakers the importance of continued NIH funding.
"Half a million people die from cancer each and every year and we put $5 billion towards that war. We put $1 trillion towards (the Iraq) war that we never should have fought in the first place. That makes no sense."
Jensen said KU's location was strongly in its favor.
"Those of us in the Midwest can rightfully claim to be in an underserved area as far as the National Cancer Centers program is concerned," Jensen said. "Living in Kansas means that if you want to access the services of an NCI-designated center you have to drive a minimum 200 miles. Kansas City is one of the largest metropolitan areas in the country that does not have an NCI-designated center, so certainly I would expect that to be a consideration."
KU Hospital Chief Executive Bob Page said the NCI application process fostered new collaboration among the campus, the community and the region.
"When history is written about the success of this campus, one of the fundamental components of that history will be partnership," Page said. "I think the recent recognition that we've gotten by U.S. News and World Report to name our cancer program as the No. 44 program in the country indicates that we're making progress toward that goal."
Matthew Mayo has been at KU since 1998 as a researcher and executive. He's now the cancer center's associate director of shared resources. He said 13 years ago, KU's cancer research expertise was disjointed.
"What Roy (Jensen) has done since he's been here is really enhance the collaborative culture at KU and in the region," Mayo said. "A person sitting on an island can only do so much. But with a community of researchers, we can all go much further."
Mayo's department brings together previously disparate facilities, researchers and equipment as part of the collaboration effort. Now, resources are more readily accessible to any cancer center researcher for analyzing biospecimens, for clinical trials, for database construction and for drug discovery.
"He had a vision and had come from a cancer center developing that culture. When you haven't been at one, it's hard to understand the culture and what the National Cancer Institute expects," Mayo said. "Personally, I've gone from working on five projects to more like 120. We try to make the sum bigger than the parts."