New boss wants UK cancer center on national stage

University of Kentucky medical officials are celebrating the arrival of the Markey Cancer Center's new director but won't spend much time cheering — there's too much work to be done.

UK has high hopes for what the center can do with researcher and cancer surgeon Dr. B. Mark Evers at the helm, including attaining a key national level of recognition.

In the next three to five years, the university wants to become a National Cancer Institute-designated center as determined by the National Institutes of Health, said Dr. Jay A. Perman, dean of UK's College of Medicine.

Just 64 institutions hold that title, which is a symbol of top-flight research and care. The closest facilities to Lexington with that designation are hours away at Ohio State University or Vanderbilt University or in Indianapolis.

"It's something that we've aspired to, and it's something we feel we've made great progress toward in terms of our breadth of research," Perman said.

Total grant money also is an NCI criterion, and Evers, who is leaving the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, and his team of researchers — many of whom could follow him to Kentucky — would bring as much as $14 million in NIH money right away.

Evers said attaining the NCI designation would be "a tremendous goal for me."

It's not just for the prestige, he said. That designation would show that the center has the very best researchers and physicians to lead the charge against cancer in a region crippled by the disease.

That's something Evers knows first hand. He grew up in Tennessee, and he completed his residency at the University of Louisville medical center in 1988.

"A lot of my family members and close friends are in the Tennessee-Kentucky area, and some have been afflicted with cancer," Evers said.

Evers' specialty is fighting gastrointestinal cancers, both through surgery and through understanding the disease at its cellular level.

"Mark Evers is an internationally respected academic surgical oncologist who is tremendously well known for his outstanding leadership abilities," said James Economou, deputy director of the Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center and chief of surgical oncology at the University of California-Los Angeles.

Surgery to remove a tumor is just one piece of the treatment. "What's disconcerting is once it spreads to the lymph nodes," Evers said. "A lot of my work is trying to see what we can do about that."

About a dozen of Evers' team of students and post-graduate researchers will follow him, he said. So far, four other Ph.D.-level faculty members have signed on with UK to follow Evers from Galveston, according to UK.

Several among Evers' group of researchers also specialize in colorectal cancer, and others focus on breast and pancreatic cancers.

But the basis of their research is the same: to better understand cancer at the cellular level, so doctors can tailor treatments to individual cases.

The Markey Cancer Center already has 34,000 square feet of dedicated research space, and university officials have pledged 10,000 square feet to be available upon Evers' arrival, plus an additional 20,000 square feet within 10 years. UK has pegged two floors of the new pharmacy school building to be used for medical research. The building will open sometime next year.

Dr. Michael Karpf, UK's executive vice president for health affairs, said Evers' first charge will be to evaluate the strengths of the center and ways to bolster four to five key specialties.

"We've made steady, steady progress," Karpf said. "Until Evers comes, we can't make that quantum jump that we have to make that really throws us to the national spotlight."