Life Sciences

A lot of cities dream of establishing themselves as centers of bioscience and biotechnology. Few are able to pull that off. Through a mixture of vision, dedication, philanthropy and sheer will, Kansas City stands as the exception.

What would a portrait of the life sciences in the Kansas City look like? Here are just a few pieces, painted in the spring of 2016:

• Innara Health announced the results of a study that showed its NTrainer System helped premature infants on feeding tubes transition more quickly to independent oral feeding, and reduced the time needed in neonatal intensive care.

• A company called Spinal Simplicity announced that it had secured a new round of financing from Nueterra Capital, following its commercialization of a device that can be implanted in the human spinal cord to relieve pinched nerves.

• The University of Kansas’ Institute for Advancing Medical Innovation announced a partnership with BioNovus Innovations to develop and commercialize new drugs and medical devices.

By themselves, each of those developments represents an incremental expansion of life-sciences research and commercialization in the Kansas City region. The fact that all of those announcements occurred within days of each other, however, speaks to the vibrancy within the Kansas City region.

It is a sector awash in innovation, but one fraught with change. That frothiness came shining through with the release—also this spring—of the most comprehensive census of life-sciences companies and organizations in the region. That triennial survey by the Kansas City Area Life Sciences Institute showed that a 26-county region surrounding
Kansas City boasted 249 companies employing at least 28,000, up from 199 companies and as many as 20,000
jobs just three years earlier.

Along the way, it said, 43 companies had either left the region or closed, but 65 new ones were included. Among other key findings:

• Nearly two-thirds of the life-sciences companies nearby are focused on human health.

• Animal-health concerns account for 26 percent of surveyed companies.

• And plant health, perhaps the biggest growth opportunity, accounted for 8 percent.

• In terms of allocation by state, Kansas was considerably further ahead in attracting life-sciences companies, with 62 percent located there, to Missouri’s 38 percent.

• Missouri, however, was leading with employment, with companies on that side of the State Line accounting for 58 percent of total employment, vs. 42 percent in Kansas.

• And the 10 largest companies accounted for 60 percent of regional life-sciences employment.

One goal of the survey, the institute said, is to capture the attention of investors who in years past have tended to overlook this part of the country in favor of locales like Boston, San Francisco or North Carolina’s Research Triangle.

Already, research efforts around the region are doing just that. Among the leaders in that field:

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THE UNIVERSITY OF KANSAS HOSPITAL, in tandem with the UNIVERSITY OF KANSAS CANCER CENTER. The hospital boasts more than a dozen research centers and institutes focusing on a wide range of medical maladies (cardiovascular, neurological, etc.) and conditions (aging, pediatrics, etc.).

The highest profile of those may be the cancer center. In 2012, the hospital achieved a goal it had set for itself nearly a decade earlier, securing a prized designation from the National Cancer Institute as a national cancer center,
one of just 69 nationwide. That was vital, hospital executives say, because no other regional initiative had the potential to drive economic development and improve public health. 

On a clinical level, it meant that area residents would have more immediate access to advanced care and clinical trials, rather than travel to other states for those services. According to the hospital, some 1,200 employees—including faculty, researchers, clinical and administrative staff—are specifically devoted to cancer clinical care and research. Even the pursuit of NCI designation in the five years before it was achieved was credited with creating 1,014 regional jobs, with an economic impact of $346 million for the region. And as of this year, those numbers are projected to hit 2,241 jobs and $1.93 billion in economic impact.

Next up an even more rarified atmosphere: NCI designation as a Comprehensive Cancer Center, only 45 of which now exist nationwide. That, too, will require tens of millions of dollars in funding, but the goal is worthwhile they say: Making it to the first tier is like earning a spot on a professional sports team’s roster, but they liken the comprehensive designation to earning a spot on the All-Star team. 

Less than three miles from the KU campus is the STOWERS INSTITUTE FOR MEDICAL RESEARCH,
perhaps the match that set off the regional life sciences explosion after it opened its doors in 2000 by breathing
new life into the former Menorah Medical Center.

The independent, freestanding research institution, covering 600,000 square feet, was founded by Jim and Virginia Stowers, cancer survivors who donated the bulk of their personal fortune—$2 billion—to create a cancer-research facility. More than that, the late Jim Stowers turned to the company he founded, American Century

Investments, and made it a vehicle for continuing funding; the institute has a 40 percent equity stake in the investment firm, ensuring a continuing revenue stream.

Close to Downtown Kansas City, CHILDREN’S MERCY HOSPITALS & CLINICS has emerged as one of the nation’s premier pediatric hospitals over the past 25 years. It also has dramatically raised its profile with industry-sponsored clinical trials and research programs, particularly in pediatric therapeutics. The hospital has conducted a wide range of pediatric clinical research studies, particularly with pediatric pharmacology, where it boasts the nation’s largest such program, and with drug-therapy trials sponsored by industry, local, and state agencies and the federal government. The hospital’s Center for Pediatric Genomic Medicine is at the forefront of diagnosing pediatric diseases, developing clinical tests for innovative treatments of pediatric diseases. 

SAINT LUKE’S HEALTH SYSTEM, which operates five medical centers in metropolitan Kansas City, including its main campus north of the Country Club Plaza, is also among the top health-care research facilities in the Midwest. More than 300 researchers conduct studies in specialized fields like liver disease and transplantation management,cancer and cardiovascular treatment, enrolling thousands of patients in research trials every year. The National Institutes of Health, American Heart Association, Saint Luke’s Foundation, and companied in pharmaceuticals and medical-device manufacturing all help fund a robust research program.

HCA Midwest Health, through its SARAH CANON RESEARCH INSTITUTE, is also conducting clinical trials
into cancer treatment, with more than 500 community based trials encompassing the efforts of more than 1,000 physicians. More than 2,000 patients a year take part in those studies, which include oncologists, hematologists, gynecologic oncologists, and neurooncologists. Established in 2008, the Clinical Research Program operates across the range of HCA Midwest’s hospitals in the region—Belton Regional Medical Center, Centerpoint Medical Center, Lee’s Summit Medical Center, Menorah Medical Center, Overland Park Regional Medical Center, and Research Medical Center.

And a collaboration involving some of those Kansas City research pillars is the MIDWEST CANCER ALLIANCE. It was formed in 2008 with five founding members that shared a common goal of bringing more cancer treatment options closer to home. Now with 21 members, including the University of Kansas and Kansas State University, its major hospitals include Stormont-Vail Health and St. Francis Health Care in Topeka, Via Christi Health in Wichita, and
hospitals as far away as Hays, Goodland and Garden City. 

In addition to those established programs, the region is poised to become a global center for bioscience research—particularly in animal and plant health—when the NATIONAL BIO AND AGRO DEFENSE FACILITY opens in 2021 in Manhattan, Kan. This $1.2 billion project is expected to attract world-class research talent, with the potential for commercialization that could spin off new companies as it pursues its mission to seek innovative methods for safeguarding the nation’s food supplies. Almost adjacent to the NBAF property is KANSAS STATE UNIVERSITY’s Biosecurity Research Institute, which supports infectious disease research programs that span the entire food supply chain, from farm to fork. It’s part of the university’s ambitious North Campus Corridor vision, and a key element in its plans to be a Top 50 research university by 2025.