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UAMS raises $15 million in effort for National Cancer Institute designation

Michael Hibblen
Dr. Michael Birrer, vice chancellor and director of UAMS’ Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute, discusses the goal of achieving the National Cancer Institute designation during Wednesday's announcement. Watching are Chris and Kim Fowler who made a $1 million donation and UAMS Chancellor Dr. Cam Patterson.

The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences announced Wednesday that it has raised more than $15 million towards achieving National Cancer Institute designation, which is half of its $30 million goal.

Chancellor Dr. Cam Patterson said the hospital sees patients from 50 countries around the world and all 75 counties in Arkansas each year.

“We have a broad service mission and I think in so many ways we are absolutely the best in the world in what we do here both in terms of the care that we provide, but also the research and education that happens here,” he said during an announcement in the lobby of the Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute.

There are about 70 cancer centers in the country that have the designation, he said, and UAMS achieving it would assure that Arkansans have access to the best care, clinical trials and cutting edge treatments. It would also mean people wouldn’t have to leave the state for certain kinds of treatment.

“Studies have shown that patients do better if they receive care close to home and we need to make sure that no one has to make the choice to leave the state of Arkansas to get the optimal care if they are struggling with an issue related to cancer,” Patterson said.

The impact of a NCI designation would not only be clinical, he said, but economical. About $70 million a year would go into Arkansas annually if UAMS receives the designation and over 600 additional jobs would be created.

“We’ve been extremely fortunate that the state of Arkansas and Gov. Asa Hutchinson and our legislators have provided ongoing substantial financial support to enable us to march down the pathway towards NCI designation,” Patterson said.

As a commitment to the state, he said UAMS set its own goal of raising $30 million to support efforts to achieve the designation. The halfway mark was passed thanks to a $1 million donation from Chris and Kim Fowler of Jonesboro. It was made in appreciation of treatment Chris Fowler received from Dr. James Suen after being diagnosed with throat cancer in 2011.

Dr. Michael Birrer, vice chancellor and director of UAMS’ Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute, said during Wednesday’s announcement that their gift came at an important time.

“Pursuit of the designation is by definition an ambitious challenge that will demand the hearts and minds of everybody in this room, the hearts and minds of people across this campus, and the hearts and minds of people across the state of Arkansas,” Birrer said.

Donations like this are essential, he said, to recruit and hire the best and brightest young researchers which in turn can bring additional grant money to the institution. Despite the pandemic, Birrer said UAMS has hired 16 lab researchers. Philanthropic investments will also allow growth in clinical services and clinical trial operations, which he said “are essential for the pursuit of the designation.”

Amy Jo Jenkins runs the clinical trials office at UAMS and Birrer said since July 1 she has hired 22 staff members to expand clinical trials. 300 are needed, with the institution currently at about half of that, according to Patterson.

To achieve the designation, Birrer said they must convince the National Cancer Institute that UAMS engages with people in all 75 counties in the state.

“Community outreach and engagement is an incredibly important component, it’s probably 35% of our score,” Birrer said.

Patterson said in an interview after Wednesday’s announcement that he expects to reach the goals for funding, community outreach and clinical trials within the next two to three years, which will enable UAMS to then submit its application to the National Cancer Institute.

Maddie Becker serves as an intern at KUAR News as part of the George C. Douthit Endowed Scholarship program for the Fall 2021 semester.
Michael Hibblen is News Director of UA Little Rock Public Radio. A 34-year radio veteran, he oversees the KUAR News staff, plans coverage and edits stories while also reporting and anchoring newscasts.