Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Q&A: KU Cancer Center director discusses national designation, upcoming challenges

By KARREY BRITT, The Lawrence Journal-World

Dr. Roy Jensen, director of Kansas University Cancer Center, said doctors are able to save the lives of about two-thirds of patients who are diagnosed with cancers, but for one out three, there is no treatment.

“We’ve got to have better drugs. We’ve got to have drugs that take new approaches against this disease,” Jensen said Tuesday during a Lawrence Noon Rotary Club meeting at the Holiday Inn Lawrence. “Our university is one of the leading centers across this nation for drug discovery and development and that has been and will continue to be a critical aspect of what we are as a cancer center.”

Jensen said while KU Cancer Center recently earned the coveted National Cancer Institute designation, its work is far from over. In four years, it plans to apply for NCI’s Comprehensive Care Center designation, which is the highest level given. To achieve such status, Jensen said the center will work closely with its 18 partners in the Midwest Cancer Alliance, including Lawrence Memorial Hospital’s Oncology Center, to grow its research, education and outreach.

“It’s really demonstrating to the NCI that we’ve taken the cancer center and really want to get the benefits out into the community and move the needle in the right direction in terms of cancer incidence and mortality,” he said.

Jensen has been giving presentations across the state, including in Hays, Goodland, Pittsburg and Manhattan, during the past couple of weeks. Before his presentation Tuesday in Lawrence, he sat down for a one-on-one interview with the Lawrence Journal-World.

Here are excerpts from the 15-minute interview:

Q: What does NCI designation mean?

A: NCI-designated cancer centers are really the crucible from which all therapeutic advances of the last 40 years have sprung from, and it involves the application of basic science research to understanding cancer and then translating that information into new therapeutic advances.

Q: What is the Midwest Cancer Alliance that Lawrence Memorial Hospital recently became a part of?

A: It has really brought together cancer professionals from all across the state into what we refer to as a community of care in that it helps them understand all of the institutions throughout this entire area and what the different options are for patients as they start on their individual cancer journeys. It helps us really provide the infrastructure to ensure that every patient, no matter where they are or where they are treated, gets the best possible care and has access to cutting-edge clinical trials.

Q: What have been the keys to getting NCI designation?

A: We grew our cancer research funding over the last few years and now if you look at all of our sources, it’s over $50 million. It was about $26 million in 2004 when we started working toward NCI. Not only leveraging the School of Pharmacy and molecular biosciences at the Lawrence campus, but we also partnered with the Stowers Institute for Medical Research in Kansas City, Mo., developed the Midwest Cancer Alliance and then there’s the incredible support that we’ve gotten across the region. That includes state government, the Kansas Bioscience Authority and Johnson County residents who passed a sales tax in support of the initiative. All of those things, I think, were critical to getting us to where we are today.

Q: Are there certain cancers that KU Center will focus on?

A: We are a Phase 1 program, and a Phase 1 program is primarily intended for patients that have exhausted all therapeutic approaches and they are looking for new drugs that may have an effect on their particular cancer. I think leveraging all of the expertise that we have around drug discovery and development makes it logical to focus in that area. We have a lot of other clinical strengths particularly breast cancer, bone marrow transplantation, prostate cancer, head and neck cancer that are extremely strong and I think we will be able to attract patients from all over.

Q: What are your thoughts on the Affordable Care Act?

A: It actually has a big effect on cancer patients. If you look at people who are diagnosed with cancer, particularly those who have health insurance at that time or don’t have health insurance at that time, those that don’t have health insurance have a 50 percent lower five-year survival rate. That’s a stunning difference. It points out the fact that you can not get comprehensive, coordinated cancer care in your local ER. So, I think being able to insure somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 million additional Americans absolutely will save lives particularly for the cancer patients.

Q: Do you have any advice for medical students thinking about specializing in oncology?

A: I think we are undergoing a huge revolution in not only how we treat cancer patients but how we think about cancer and how we develop new therapeutic approaches. We are set for one of the most exciting times in the history of medicine as far as I’m concerned. That’s the good side. The bad side is the discretionary funding of the federal budget is under greater pressure right now. So, there may not be funding to explore the knowledge and advance medicine.

Q: Why have you taken an interest in cancer? Have you been personally affected by cancer?

A: I have way too much motivation in this regard. I have folks who contact my office practically every week looking for help and direction.

Q: It seems like everybody knows someone with cancer. Why is it so prevalent?

A: There’s a lot of things that come into play. Demographically, our country is getting older, and older individuals are much more likely to get cancer. As we move towards 2030, it’s likely that we will see a doubling of cancer patients in this country. We have got to get the infrastructure in place to deal with this and we can’t just accept that fate. We’ve got to work towards making that better and turning the needle so that we decrease the number of cancer cases and we give hope to folks who wind up getting cancer.