Knowledge Center

Banking on KC – Dr. Roy Jensen of The University of Kansas Cancer Center

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Kelly Scanlon:

Welcome to Banking on KC. I'm your host Kelly Scanlon. Thank you for joining us. With us on this episode is Dr. Roy Jensen, Vice-Chancellor and Director of the University of Kansas Cancer Center, or the KU Cancer Center as it's often called.

Kelly Scanlon:

He's here to talk with us today about the Cancer Center's pursuit of the top National Cancer Center Institute Cancer Center designation. We'll also gain some insights into how KU Cancer Center continues to transform the care experience for patients while providing access to breakthrough ideas and new treatments. Welcome, Dr. Jensen.

Dr. Roy Jensen:

And good morning.

Kelly Scanlon:

Good morning. The University of Kansas Cancer Center achieved National Cancer Institute or NCI Cancer Center status in 2012. It's the only cancer center in the region and one of only, I believe, 71 in the nation to have earned that designation.

Dr. Roy Jensen:

That's correct.

Kelly Scanlon:

What does this designation signify and why is it important for KU Cancer Center?

Dr. Roy Jensen:

Sure. The Center's program actually started with the passage of the National Cancer Act 50 years ago, signed by Richard Nixon. And it created this program in recognition of the fact that cancer is an enormously complex disease. And in fact, it's probably hundreds, if not thousands of different diseases. And the Center's program was created to bring many different disciplines together to work on the cancer problem.

Dr. Roy Jensen:

And so Cancer Center designation basically indicates that we are one of the most important institutions in the country that NCI has chosen to bring into the fold, as far as being at the table for working on cancer and helping to lead this fight.

Kelly Scanlon:

And now the Cancer Center is pursuing another designation, the Comprehensive Cancer Center designation, which is a top designation that's awarded by the NCI only to the very best cancer centers in the country. So tell us about that and what it means for KU Cancer Center if you achieve it. And it looks like you are very much on track to do that.

Dr. Roy Jensen:

Well, we certainly think so, Kelly. Comprehensive status essentially means that you're among the crème de la crème of the NCI-designated centers. Right now there are 52 such centers across the country. And again, many of these centers have been in place for well over 40 years and so they work very hard to achieve this designation.

Dr. Roy Jensen:

We're quite proud of the fact that we're now in our 10th year, and we think that we're in a great position to be able to compete for this status. And it is essentially the nuclear aircraft carriers of the cancer center world.

Kelly Scanlon:

When are you expecting word on that?

Dr. Roy Jensen:

We just turned in our grant about a week and a half ago. And it is a government program so we're not going to find out until late June or early July.

Kelly Scanlon:

KU Cancer Center probably contributing, I'm sure very much contributing, to the fact that you are in the running for this crème de la crème as you said, is that you're well known for your innovative new treatments, for example, proton therapy. Tell us about that breakthrough.

Dr. Roy Jensen:

So the Midwest is a region of the country that has relatively few examples of this new type of radiation therapy. And most radiation machines deliver an X-ray beam. Proton therapy actually delivers a charged particle, that is a proton, to the tumor. And the physics of that are completely different.

Dr. Roy Jensen:

And the advantages that it brings is that the area around the tumor does not have to be radiated, so to speak. And so in many cases, the side effects from radiation come from the normal tissue that surrounds the tumor that gets radiated. In the situation of proton therapy, you can be much more selective and hone the beam in on the tumor itself and not the surrounding normal tissue.

Kelly Scanlon:

I would imagine with fewer side effects that recovery is faster and that the overall prognosis is faster, being able to zero in on the culprit, so to speak.

Dr. Roy Jensen:

That's right. There's less of an impact probably on the prognosis and efficacy of proton radiation, but the major advantage is decreasing the side effects.

Kelly Scanlon:

What are some of the other novel cancer treatments that are in clinical trials at KU Cancer Center that have a lot of potential?

Dr. Roy Jensen:

We have a very active drug discovery and development group at KU Cancer Center, and that's led by Dr. Scott Weir. And in fact, over the last grant period, we have developed five KU-invented agents that are now in our clinics. And that is a record of drug discovery that is hard to match. I don't care who you are or what cancer center you're.

Dr. Roy Jensen:

At a great example of that is a drug by the name of fosciclopirox. And it is the first bladder cancer-specific drug that has been developed in well over 40 years. And that is now in clinical trials at the KU Cancer Center.

Kelly Scanlon:

And over what time period? You've mentioned these five, over what time period have you done that?

Dr. Roy Jensen:

Typically it takes anywhere from 12 to 17 years or so, maybe as long as 20 years to develop a new drug. And our target is to try to decrease the timeframe on that. And fosciclopirox in particular, we're now about in our fourth or fifth year in the development of that drug,

Kelly Scanlon:

You mentioned that long timeframe. And I know that's something that a lot of people know about, that it can take forever it seems to get a drug to market. What do you think are the reasons that that time period is shrinking?

Dr. Roy Jensen:

Well, I think there's a variety of different reasons for that. One of the things that we're trying to bring to the table is to develop a specifically focused team, that that is their number one priority and close to being their only priority.

Dr. Roy Jensen:

In the past, I think the situation was such that people had all kinds of responsibilities and it was just one of the burners that they were responsible for taking care of. And we try to limit that down to where the folks working on this drug, that's their major area of responsibility.

Kelly Scanlon:

As we all know, COVID-19 has profoundly impacted many sectors. In fact, you could probably say it's affected all sectors. So what kind of impact has it had on the Cancer Center and on cancer or screenings, diagnosis, and treatment in general?

Dr. Roy Jensen:

There's been a number of national presentations that have been given by the NCI that have documented the impact of COVID on cancer research in particular. And in general, the range across NCI-designated centers is a decrease anywhere from 40 to 20% in comparison to their normal number of accrual. And at the KU Cancer Center, we're right in line with that. In fact, our accruals are down about 20%.

Dr. Roy Jensen:

And of course, the reason for that is that in most cases trials were suspended for several months while we worked through the issues of making sure that our patients were in a safe environment, they did not have to worry about COVID infection while they were in our facilities. And that just took some time.

Kelly Scanlon:

We talked about the importance of the NCI designations to the Cancer Center itself, but the ramifications are even broader than that. It's located here in a large metropolitan area. What is the economic impact in particular, but the overall impact too, of the NCI designation for the Kansas City region?

Dr. Roy Jensen:

There have been a number of studies now that have come out over the last 10 years. And these studies are largely in agreement, in that overall patients that are treated at NCI-designated cancer centers have about a 25% improved survival at the end of the first year of treatment. That's an astounding number, I think, that most people don't realize.

Dr. Roy Jensen:

In terms of the second part of your question, what economic impact has the Cancer Center had. We've been keeping track of that since 2007 when the Kansas legislature was very generous in providing us about $5 million per year going forward to help with achieving Cancer Center status. And we have kept track of the number of jobs that that's meant and the economic activity. And just the research program alone has brought about 4,000 new jobs to this region, average salary of about 68,000 per year. And that has resulted in about two and a half billion dollars of cumulative economic activity over that period of time.

Kelly Scanlon:

That's astounding. And then you have to think about all the ancillary businesses too. I mean, where people go to lunch, and when people come into the city to get the services, the hotels that they stay at and so forth. And then you talked about that amazing rate at the beginning of this question, and you just think about all of those lives that were saved, so just a phenomenal impact overall.

Kelly Scanlon:

Dr. Jensen, you've spent a career in cancer research. You've been at the KU Cancer Center since 2004. You're currently a professor of pathology in laboratory medicine, a professor of anatomy in cell biology, professor of cancer biology. And before that, you were a member of the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center and a faculty member in pathology, cell biology, and cancer biology for 13 years.

Kelly Scanlon:

You've had a long history and a wide perspective during a time when many innovations have occurred. When do you see the next big breakthrough in cancer research and the treatment of cancer heading?

Dr. Roy Jensen:

I think we're in the middle of that right now. And it's happening on a number of different fronts. I think a lot of people know about the concept of personalized medicine, where we really try to tailor therapy specifically to a patient's tumor. And much of that is involved in understanding what specific mutations are driving a particular individual's cancer. And then utilizing so-called targeted therapy to specifically hone in on those particular mutations. And that's one example.

Dr. Roy Jensen:

The other revolution is really around adapting the immune system to do a better job of a patient's cancer. There we're really proud of the job that Joel McGuirk and his team in the CAR-T therapy group have done to really help pioneer that treatment for our leukemia and lymphoma and myeloma patients. And that story has really been one which has revolutionized the treatment for those particular types of cancers.

Kelly Scanlon:

Talk to us a little bit more about that. When you say honing in on that particular individual's immune system, what do you mean by that exactly?

Dr. Roy Jensen:

Well, it's almost, it sounds like science-fiction.

Kelly Scanlon:

Yes, yes. It's fascinating.

Dr. Roy Jensen:

What we do there is we remove a patient's white blood cells and essentially insert DNA into those cells that teaches them what cancer looks like. And if the cell encounters a tumor cell, to be able to kill the cancer cell. We're basically grooming the patient's own white blood cells to become cancer assassins if you will.

Dr. Roy Jensen:

That idea is, it's almost crazy to think about, but we're doing it hundreds of times across the country pretty much every day. And it's an astounding advance. And people that had exhausted all previous forms of therapy, less than a few months to live, are getting up pretty much off their deathbeds and going on to living a large really normal life. And it's just an astounding development.

Kelly Scanlon:

That's absolutely incredible. Do you think that we'll get to a point where it's not the death sentence, like you just referred to it, that it is today in so many cases?

Dr. Roy Jensen:

I think it's important to look back in history and see how far we've, we've come. Since the passage of the National Cancer Act in 1971, the five-year survival rate from cancer has improved from 49% up to just under 70%, and it continues to improve. It's been a continuous process. There haven't been any breaks in that, there haven't been any dramatic increases. It's been a slow, steady rise. As we gain more information about cancer, we're better able to design therapies that are better suited for individual cancers. I think we're going to make more progress and patients will have many fewer side effects.

Dr. Roy Jensen:

And there was a great article about this in the New York Times a week or two ago, questioning whether or not we're beginning to see the end of chemotherapy as treatment for cancer. In some cases, that's exactly what we're seeing.

Kelly Scanlon:

It's just amazing as you say, in really a fairly short time. Dr. Jensen, thank you so much for all of the work that you do to try to make so many lives better. And good luck on your Comprehensive Cancer Center designation that you've just applied for and hoping to hear back from soon. Thank you so much for your time today.

Dr. Roy Jensen:

Well, thank you so much, Kelly. And it is our pleasure and our life's mission to serve the people of this region. It is truly an honor.

Joe Close:

This is Joe Close, President of Country Club Bank. Thank you to Dr. Roy Jensen for being our guest on this episode of Banking on KC. The Midwest is known as the breadbasket of the nation, a nod to its wheat farms and agrarian roots.

Joe Close:

More recently America's heartland, especially the Kansas City region, is earning a reputation for innovation. The University of Kansas Cancer Center is a case in point. The KU Cancer Center's focus on breakthrough ideas and pursuit of new treatments, such as proton therapy, has earned it a top designation held by only 70 other cancer centers in the country. And it is now positioned to compete for an even more prestigious designation held by only 52 other cancer centers.

Joe Close:

Over and above what the breakthroughs mean for cancer screenings, diagnosis and treatment, the ramifications for Kansas City are significant economically in terms of job growth, salary growth and new business spinoffs. Country Club Bank recognizes the important role of innovation in keeping communities viable. We are proud to support the innovators in our community, and we'd love to talk to you about how we can help you move forward. Thanks for tuning in this week. We're banking on you, Kansas City. Country Club Bank, Member FDIC.

 

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