Rachel Herzog notes for Northwest Arkansas Democrat Leaders at the Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences are stepping up efforts to earn a national designation that would more than double the facility’s access to federal grants and bring in millions of dollars in health care jobs.
This was highlighted in Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s tour of the facility Wednesday morning, his first visit since UAMS Chancellor Cam Patterson took over in June. Dr. Laura Hutchins, who has served as the cancer institute’s interim director since Aug. 1, said the institute has been trying to become a National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center since it opened nearly 30 years ago.
“This doesn’t happen without a really concentrated effort to achieve that,” she said, emphasizing the need for state support.
The classification would give Arkansans more access to experimental cancer treatments and make prevention, screening, education and treatment programs more widespread throughout the state, reaching rural areas with historically low access to advanced healthcare, according to a report from UAMS. Patients in the Delta region have higher cancer mortality rates than the rest of the state, Hutchins said.
“There would be funding available to help us deliver care to those areas,” she said.
The institute would be eligible to receive more money from federally funded research grants.
About 68 percent of the National Cancer Institute’s outside budget goes to scientists at NCI-designated cancer centers, the UAMS report states. There are no designated centers in Arkansas, Louisiana or Mississippi.
A complete assessment of the statewide economic impact the designation would have is underway, Hutchins said. Getting it would bring $70 million worth of healthcare jobs into the state, said Liz Caldwell, director of news and communications for UAMS.
Regional competition is a factor. The Stephenson Cancer Center at Oklahoma University received NCI designation in May, and Hutchins said she has heard rumors that a center in Memphis is accelerating its push for the designation.
“If they get designated before we do, we should be ashamed. Completely ashamed,” she said.
Getting the title would take a few years. The institute already meets several characteristics of an NCI-designated center, including plenty of physical lab space and high-quality clinical research, according to UAMS’ report.
But the center would need to improve its community outreach and engagement, as well as recruit more NCI-funded physician-scientists and researchers, the report states. The institute has applied for the title once before.
The center also needs a new permanent director. Dr. Peter Emanuel vacated the role in July, and a national search has been ongoing. On Wednesday, CHI St. Vincent announced that Emanuel had been named director of oncology services, a program that hospital is also working to expand.
Emanuel’s research has been consistently funded by the National Institutes of Health for more than 25 years, according to CHI St. Vincent’s statement. He served as the acting director of the NCI-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Alabama at Birmingham from 2004 to 2006.
His resignation followed UAMS’ decision to temporarily suspend its cardiac surgery program due to lead surgeon Dr. Gareth Tobler’s retirement.
That program restarted at the beginning of July, as the hospital contracted with four new physicians.
In January, UAMS laid off almost 260 employees to curb an anticipated $72.3 million deficit. Those layoffs included one full-time physician who did not work at the cancer institute.
Hutchinson noted the need for a long-term plan for UAMS’ financial future and stability. He said he would continue to look at ways to support the state’s only academic health sciences university and largest public employer.
“This is the kind of investment that I think we all realize is important for our state,” he said.