Local Collaboration on Cancer Research Draws Optimism

About 100 people attended event at Children’s Mercy

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Pediatric cancer researchers say they are optimistic about the regional cooperation being developed with medical providers through the University of Kansas Cancer Center.

“I think the sky is the limit,” Dr. Steven Stites, senior associate dean for clinical affairs at the University of Kansas Medical Center, said of the research partnerships. “I look forward to seeing what that sky will look like.”

His comments were made Wednesday at a meeting at Children’s Mercy Hospital that drew about 100 people. The collaborative work described at the event ranged from drug development to patient surveys.

Two local leukemia patients were among those attending. Isaac Hilker, a 20-month-old from Overland Park, was with his mother, Amy. Trevor Jolley, 6, of Independence, also was brought by his mother, Amy.

The collaborations are promoted by the Midwest Cancer Alliance, a dues-paying organization that links the KU Cancer Center with hospitals, providers and patients throughout Kansas and western Missouri.

The alliance has 20 member institutions, ranging from the Stowers Institute for Medical Research in Kansas City, Mo., to Goodland Regional Medical Center in Goodland, Kan. Children’s Mercy also is a member.

Established in 2008, the alliance has awarded about $2.5 million in research grants, including funding the researchers who appeared Wednesday.

Officials said the alliance played a critical role in the cancer center’s successful effort to become a federally recognized center through the National Cancer Institute. The KU Cancer Center earned the designation in June 2012, and officials said the NCI reviewers gave the center high marks for its regional and institutional support.

Wednesday’s event was a follow-up to the announcement of KU’s NCI designation and was designed to illustrate the types of cross-institution projects enabled through the Midwest Cancer Alliance.

Also cited at the meeting was the Dec. 3 announcement that Children’s Mercy and the University of Kansas are in the early stages of integrating their pediatric care. Officials from each organization said they want to advance research, academics, and advocacy around pediatrics and children’s health.

Children’s Mercy researchers who were present included: Drs. Doug Myers, Erin Guest, and Kathleen Neville. Kristin Stegenga, a Ph.D. and registered nurse, also discussed her work.

Alliance grants to the researchers ranged from $10,000 to $380,000, according to alliance officials.

“Without this partnership organization it might have taken many additional years to obtain the necessary funding and the necessary critical partnerships to support these efforts,” said Dr. Alan Gamis, who is with Children’s Mercy’s hematology/oncology division. “I hope you will agree that the children of the Kansas City region … as well as across the country will have a happier healthier life because of it.”

Among the research projects cited:

  • Myers is targeting a cancer known as neuroblastoma, which he said is the most common non-brain tumor among children. Part of his work involves transplanting a new immune system, usually from the parents, into the patient.
  • Guest is focusing on the cause and on better treatments for a type of leukemia, tied to a “break” in a certain gene, which is very difficult to cure, has a high relapse rate and requires high doses of chemotherapy medicines. Isaac Hilker is her patient. “No parent should have to be in Amy’s shoes,” Guest said.
  • Neville is developing a liquid version of a leukemia drug that only comes in a tablet; a bad option given that the average age of those with pediatric leukemia is 2. “So if anyone in this room can find me a 2-year-old who can swallow a pill,” she said, “we might have a job for you.” For now, many parents crush the pills and administer them best they can.
  • Stegenga surveyed adult survivors of childhood cancer to better target programs and services to meet their needs. And as a follow-up project is working on educational material for primary care providers who are seeing the survivors for general health needs.

Neville is young Trevor Jolley’s doctor. The boy started kindergarten in the fall and doctors expect to complete his treatment next month.

“It’s a day I couldn’t even imagine over three years ago,” his mother said. “Nor could I imagine all that we would face and overcome. Now, the end is within reach, and we are making plans for a big celebration.”

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