National Designation Brings Improved Cancer Treatment to UK

Aug 31, 2013

LEXINGTON, Ky-  Cancer is one of the biggest health issues affecting Kentucky., with over 25,000 new cases reported in 2012.  Reporter Chase Cavanaugh has the story of a treatment program that has received the attention of the National Cancer Institute.

The University of Kentucky has long been a regional medical hub, particularly with cancer treatment. Their Markey Center was recently recognized by the NCI, making it the only such program in Kentucky and one of 67 nationwide.  Dr Mark Evers is the facility’s executive director.  

"This is something that affirms what we’ve all known here for many years.  The Markey Center’s a great place, a great collegial environment, great multidisciplinary approach to cancers," he said. 

Centers with this designation receive a variety of benefits, ranging from new cancer treatments to more money for their already formidable budgets.    

We have access to supplemental grants.  In fact, we’ve just taken advantage of a supplemental grant application, that are only available through NCI designated cancer centers, so the ability to enhance upon and amplify that $1.5 million per year is quite great," Evers added. 

This new status also recognizes a center’s past successes.  Clinical Research Director John Hayslip says UK has been especially effective at getting more patients into clinical trials.

“Around 10% of patients is what most centers are doing, so the fact that Markey was already doing that even before this federal government support and recognition I think really speaks to why the NCI saw that Markey was fit to be NCI designated," he says.

Clinical trials are the point where lab research turns into patient care, allowing for newer, more targeted drugs.  Oncologist Edward Romond says one example is Herceptin, which deals with a severe type of breast cancer.

“About 20% of breast cancers have a protein that is produced in overabundance called HER2.  It’s called a growth factor receptor protein, and this causes the cancer cell to grow much faster, much more aggressively, and spread easier," he said. 

UK successfully tested Herceptin in a national trial, and the drug is now standard treatment for  patients with HER2.  One example is Sally Leukefeld of Lexington.   

“I am very, I hate to use the word lucky, but I had the kind of cancer that that treats, and I just felt like this was the right time and the right drug, and I was just very lucky to be where I was.”

Leukefeld has been in remission for almost five years, and although she didn’t take part in Herceptin’s trials, she credits them with helping her doctors make the right decisions.

“I felt that I was given all the information pursuant to choosing the right treatment and I felt that that was because they had already gone through the trials, tried different options, and given me the benefit of their experience, she added." 

With the NCI designation, the Markey Center will gain access to many more clinical trials.  According to Dr. Romond, these won’t just help patients like Sally, but also with personnel. 

“We can take people who are here at UK who are experts in studying cancer in the laboratory, and helps move those ideas into clinical trials where we can help our patients more effectively," he said.  

Comprehensive status is a very reasonable thing for us.  Generally, centers that go in the first time don’t go in for comprehensive status.  So it’s not a mark against us.  It’s a normal progression," he said.

NCI facilities are reevaluated every five years, and when Markey comes up for review, they would like to be deemed a comprehensive care center, making them one of only 42 in the nation.  Assistant Director Tom Tucker says they are already on track to meeting this goal.

“Comprehensive status is a very reasonable thing for us," he said.  "Generally, centers that go in the first time don’t go in for comprehensive status.  So it’s not a mark against us.  It’s a normal progression." 

UK’s Markey Center has already helped thousands of cancer patients across Kentucky, and with their NCI designation, they hope to help thousands more.