Promising "better tomorrows" for a state plagued by cancer, University of Kentucky officials announced Friday that the Markey Cancer Center has won a prestigious National Cancer Institute designation.
Markey is now one of 68 medical centers that have special access to federal research funding, clinical trials and new treatments. It is the only NCI center in Kentucky, which has the most cancer deaths in the nation per 100,000 residents.
Kentucky also ranks in the top 10 for lung, colon, head and neck cancers. In Appalachian Kentucky, the overall cancer rate is 12 percent higher than in the United States as a whole.
The designation allows Markey patients to join specialized drug or treatment trials open only to NCI centers, and researchers can apply for funding limited to those places, said Michael Karpf, UK's executive vice president for health affairs.
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"It's the ultimate recognition for academic cancer centers," said Mark Evers, the executive director of Markey.
Regina Vidaver, executive director of the National Lung Cancer Partnership in Madison, Wisc., called the designation a "really big deal."
"It's not just an honor, but indicates a level of research and patient care that anyone who is seeking cancer care would take note of," she said.
Vidaver said she would not rank UK among the top hospitals for lung cancer care, but "that could change now."
Friday's announcement brought enough people to fill the large new lobby of UK Chandler Hospital with cheers and applause as UK President Eli Capilouto declared the new label for Markey.
"This is why we are here today, to keep a deep and abiding promise of better tomorrows for the Commonwealth," Capilouto told the crowd, many of them employees of UK HealthCare and Markey.
Snagging the designation required a rigorous process that started four years ago, when UK began upgrading the research and treatment facilities at Markey, and recruiting numerous clinical and research faculty.
Karpf said UK HealthCare invested $119 million in upgrades needed just to be considered for the designation by the National Institutes of Health.
"The price of being a major cancer center is not cheap, but it's an important step in UK's quest to become a top-level medical center," Karpf said. "It really says that Kentuckians don't need to go anywhere else for their cancer care."
The designation, which must be renewed every five years, also strengthens UK HealthCare's growing network of hospital partnerships around the state, including Norton Hospital in Louisville.
Evers and Karpf said the additional prestige and funding would help UK retain researchers such as Jon Thorson, who joined the College of Pharmacy in 2011 from the University of Wisconsin.
Thorson, who also directs the Center for Pharmaceutical Research and Innovation, focuses on cancer treatments that could be derived from natural products, such as resveratrol from the skin of red grapes.
The NCI label also could generate more high-tech jobs in the state as drug or device companies spin off as a result of UK's cancer research, officials said.
Kathleen O'Connor is a faculty researcher who came to UK four years ago as part of Evers' research team. Her lab studies treatments for late-stage breast and pancreatic tumors, when they become most aggressive.
O'Connor said the NCI designation gives UK an instant cachet of quality that will make it easier to attract people and funding without first having to explain that UK is doing good work even though it's in a relatively small town in a poor state.
"It brings to the forefront that we're doing outstanding work here," she said. "It brings UK into the limelight nationally," which will in turn have a "snowball effect" on research and treatment.
Having worked with Evers, O'Connor said, she had high expectations, and she knew he would work hard to get the NCI designation, but "undoubtedly he exceeded my expectations."
Friday's announcement puts UK into another elite group: the 22 university medical centers that have received a National Cancer Institute designation, a federally-funded Alzheimer's Disease Research Center, and a $20 million grant for clinical and translational science, aimed at turning research into better clinical treatments for patients.
Karpf said he is proud and excited about the NCI designation, which is "an important step in a long journey to what it takes to become a really high-quality institution."
UK HealthCare's main focus in recent years has been to become the top regional hospital for complicated health care needs.
UK HealthCare has spent more than $1.4 billion in the past 10 years on facilities, including a new bed tower, which is partially outfitted, and a parking garage. The medical center serves about 75,000 patients annually. Markey saw an 81 percent increase in new patients between 2004 and 2012.
Friday's announcement brought to Lexington a host of politicians, including Gov. Steve Beshear, U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers and state House Speaker Greg Stumbo, along with former UK presidents Lee T. Todd Jr. and Charles Wethington, who serves on the Markey Foundation board.
Capilouto thanked Todd, who touted UK's role in eliminating what Todd called the "Kentucky uglies," such as its high cancer rates.
Cancer survivor Sally Leukefeld recounted her journey through a breast cancer diagnosis, successfully routed by what she called "her team" of doctors and nurses. "This place is dedicated to taking care of us," she said.
Rogers, R-Somerset, said his previous wife, Shirley, died of esophageal cancer in 1995. His Eastern Kentucky district, he said, has a disproportionate number of cancer diagnoses and deaths. The new designation means the odds are improving for those in Eastern and Southern Kentucky who have cancer, he said.
"You're now part of the big leagues," he told the crowd.
In his speech, Karpf thanked the faculty and staff at UK HealthCare, along with the politicians who supported UK's application to the NIH. Ultimately, though, the process is judged on the quality of care and research, he said.
"Nobody tells the NIH who will get the designation," Karpf said. "This is an invitation-only club."