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KU Med opens new avenues for research

Opinion: KUMC vital to future of life science research in KC area

Editor's note: This opinion piece was written by Steve Rose, chairman of Sun Publications, about the KU Medical Center's efforts to explore alliances with area health care facilities to expand life science potential. It was originally published Dec. 20 in the Johnson County Sun.
The Stowers Institute for Medical Research has laid down the gauntlet. Now we shall see if the University of Kansas Medical Center will pick it up and run with it.

Jim and Virginia Stowers, both cancer survivors, founded the Stowers Institute six years ago with an endowment now valued at $2 billion. Their mission is clearly stated: "The Stowers Institute aspires to be one of the most innovative biomedical organizations in the world."

Why they decided to locate this institute in Kansas City is a bit baffling, but a miracle, nonetheless. The Stowers love their hometown Kansas City and believe in its future. The Stowers could have gone anywhere in America to create their institute and certainly to cities with far more advantages, particularly where there are first-class research universities nearby to complement their mission.

But, no, Stowers located across the street from UMKC, which does not meet the definition of a research university - an institution of higher education and research. There is minimal medical research conducted at UMKC.

In fact, there is only one university in the entire metropolitan area that conducts serious medical research, and that is the KU Medical Center, located primarily in Wyandotte County but soon to expand its hospital cancer center to the former Sprint headquarters in Johnson County.

Stowers has raised the bar. They have challenged KUMC to become a designated NCI - National Cancer Institute - facility, putting it in the same class with such medical centers as the Mayo Clinic and M.D. Anderson. By achieving such a designation, KUMC's cancer research efforts would be eligible for major federal grants and also would elevate the medical center to be on par with The Stowers Institute. Together, they could make this a leading community in America in the life sciences, focusing particularly on cancer research.

Stowers needs KUMC, or some research university, to conduct the actual clinical research. That is, they need real patients and real doctors to carry out the experimental efforts in treating cancer. They cannot find answers in labs alone.

If KUMC does not rise to the occasion, Stowers will have no choice but to turn to Washington University in St. Louis, which has an NCI designation, for its clinical research component.

There is one major obstacle to KUMC stepping forward, and it is political in nature.

For KUMC to become an NCI designated medical center, it would need to access thousands of patient cases, including both adults and children. That would mean that KUMC would need to partner with such hospitals as Saint Luke's and Children's Mercy, in addition to its current affiliation with the University of Kansas Hospital.

The KU Hospital - which is a separate entity from KUMC, though located on the same campus - is not crazy about this idea.

As it is now, nearly 100 percent of the patients seen by KUMC doctors are treated at the KU Hospital. That hospital has become very successful financially since it was "privatized" by the state. It is run by a dynamic CEO, Irene Cumming, who is concerned that if patients get siphoned off to other medical centers, then the KU Hospital will suffer.

The executive vice chancellor of KUMC, Barbara Atkinson, does not agree. She believes as the prestige of KUMC increases, so will the patient load, enough to continue to fill the beds at KU Hospital and handle patients at other hospitals, too.

Dr. Atkinson has taken a leadership role in spearheading the metropolitan area's efforts at becoming a center for life science research.

While KU Hospital wants to continue the exclusive relationship, KU Medical Center needs to branch out. It cannot become a first-class research center if it is tethered to the limited 475-bed KU Hospital.

There are those who would argue that KUMC - a Kansas taxpayer supported institution - should not affiliate with Missouri hospitals.

On the other hand, if KUMC maintains its exclusive relationship with KU Hospital, it eliminates any possibility of KUMC becoming an NCI-designated medical center, and Stowers will have to look elsewhere. To put it bluntly, if KUMC will not or cannot step forward, we can turn out the lights on the future of life science research in Kansas City.

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