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KU celebrates NCI cancer center designation

Achievement caps years of effort but also signals a new start

By Mike Sherry | July 12, 2012

With eyes already set on another milestone, the University of Kansas Cancer Center on Thursday formally joined a select group of top research institutions in the country.

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius personally delivered the news that the university now has the 67th federally designated cancer center through the National Cancer Institute.

Officials said the designation holds the promise of significant economic development around the region and of increased federal funding for cancer-fighting efforts throughout the state. It also comes with a multiyear grant with first-year funding of about $1.4 million, KU officials said.

The announcement capped a decadelong push by KU to achieve the designation.

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback said it offered an opportunity to perhaps cure cancer.

“It’s time to put this killer to death,” he said.

Brownback’s video address, sent because he is out of the country at a conference, was part of an hourlong ceremony at the Robert E. Hemenway Life Sciences Innovation Center on the campus of the University of Kansas Medical Center.

Among the roughly 150 people there were staff members from the KU Cancer Center and the University of Kansas Hospital and state lawmakers from the area.

Speakers included representatives of the Kansas congressional delegation, state legislative leaders, Kansas City, Kan., Mayor Joe Reardon, Cancer Center Director Dr. Roy Jensen and Bill Whitaker, a 59-year-old Shawnee resident who received life-saving treatment for throat cancer at KU.

KHI News Service

Bill Whitaker, 59, of Shawnee, spoke Thursday at the announcement that the University of Kansas Cancer Center has earned a key federal designation from the National Cancer Institute. Whitaker is a cancer survivor who received care at KU.

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“This is not a destination,” Jensen said of the achievement. “This is merely a water break and rest stop for building an incredible, internationally recognized center of excellence for cancer research and clinical care.”

The next step, Jensen said, would be for the KU Cancer Center to enter the upper tier of the NCI-designated class by earning the distinction of being a Comprehensive Cancer Center. He said nearly two-thirds of the existing centers have that status.

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

That application is probably four years away, Jensen said. He also said that the KU Cancer Center was the only one of three applicants in this round of submissions to earn the NCI designation.

One focus of the effort to achieve comprehensive status, officials said, would be focusing more on cancers within certain populations, such as rural Kansans or Hispanics.

As the cancer center moves forward with the current designation, Jensen said it will focus on areas in which it is strong.

Those include breast, prostate and head/neck cancers along with bone marrow transplants, he said.

Whitaker said the chief benefit of KU becoming a federally designated cancer center would be the boost for its research.

Diagnosed in 2004, Whitaker endured tortuous treatment as part of a clinical trial. He said he hoped that researchers could discover more targeted treatments rather than “just blasting away trying to kill everything in your body.”

In a report issued last year, the cancer center estimated that its pursuit of the NCI designation had created 1,123 jobs and had a regional economic impact of about $435 million since 2006.

According to a report prepared six years ago for the Kansas Technology Enterprise Corp., the cancer center designation could generate as much as $1.3 billion annually for a region that includes all of Kansas and 59 counties in western Missouri.

In pursuing the designation, the university brought in about $350 million in state funding and private donations. The money helped improve the university’s research facilities and attract research talent.

Brownback was among the dignitaries who gathered at the medical center in September to celebrate the submission of the roughly 600-page application to the National Cancer Institute. A review team from the institute inspected the cancer center during a February site visit.

U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, a Kansas Republican, did not attend Thursday’s ceremony. Roberts two weeks ago broke the news of the cancer center’s successful application after receiving advance notice of the decision. His announcement came in a June 28 post on his Facebook page, the same day that the U.S. Supreme Court issued its ruling on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act.

But even with Roberts’ announcement, speakers in the early part of the ceremony still couched their comments as if the decision was still unknown. Sebelius did not make her announcement until 30 minutes into the event.

U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican, declared KU’s achievement a transformative moment for the state in terms of providing science jobs and educational opportunities for residents who have had to go elsewhere in the past.

“I’ll never walk away from the agriculture of Kansas, the farmers and ranchers, the oil and gas industry, the aviation industry in south-central Kansas,” he said, “but should we get the NCI designation, it changes the character of who we are as a state.”

Highlights in the university’s pursuit of the NCI designation included:

• A $20 million commitment in 2004 from the Kansas Masonic Foundation that allowed the university to hire Jensen, a Kansas native who was recruited from the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center in Nashville, Tenn., to become director of what was then known as Kansas Masonic Cancer Research Institute.

• The 2007 launch of the Midwest Cancer Alliance, a regional network of health care and research organizations designed to enhance collaboration and increase clinical trials. Members include Children’s Mercy Hospitals and Clinics in Kansas City, Mo., and Stormont-Vail Health Care in Topeka.

• The 2009 establishment of the Institute for Advancing Medical Innovation through an $8.1 million matching grant from Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. The institute’s mission is to develop drugs and medical devices.

• The opening earlier this year of the University of Kansas Clinical Research Center in Fairway, which expanded the cancer center’s ability to conduct Phase I cancer clinical trials.

Jensen choked up at the ceremony in talking about the decision to leave Vanderbilt. The family left a newly remodeled house and happy life in Nashville.

“That was a big sacrifice,” he said, “and they supported me in that effort.”

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