New Life in the Sciences


Big Bio Research | The Kansas City region has become the Midwest's center for innovation and growth in bioscience.

The numbers tell the story. While many cities dream of securing a more prominent role in the nation’s life-sciences realm, the Kansas City region woke up at the turn of this century and set about achieving that vision.

In 2000, the region saw 79 clinical trials launched at the medical center, hospital, for-profit and university levels, a figure that ballooned to 478 by 2014 before contracting slightly in recent years.

Result? Since 2000, clinical trials on everything from high-profile diseases like cancer, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and Lou Gehrig’s diseases, down to less-glamorous conditions like depression, tooth disease and rhinosinusitis, have swelled fivefold. That
has made the region an attractive career option for life scientists and researchers, especially in the years since the Stowers Center for Medical Research opened its doors in the late 1990s, infusing new kinds of talent and study fields into the regional mix.

As of May of 2018, 567 clinical trials in the KC metro area were under way but not yet recruiting; 592 others were actively recruiting at sites like Children’s Mercy Kansas City, Saint Luke’s Health System, HCA Midwest Health’s Sarah Cannon Cancer Institute, the Stowers labs, Quintiles and PRA Health Services. More than 200 of those were taking place under the auspices of the University of Kansas and its Wyandotte County medical center, and the University of Kansas Cancer Center.

And the region’s prominence in life sciences is poised to take off over the next five years, with the 2022 projected opening of the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility in Manhattan, Kan. the western end of what’s been dubbed the Animal Health Corridor. That $1.2 billion federal project, being touted as a looming “Silicon Valley
of Biodefense,” is expected to spin off significant numbers of commercialized research into animal health, both for companion animals as well as production animals like livestock and poultry.

It’s a lot to take in, and lots of moving pieces are contributing to this shift to industries that pay significantly higher wages than national or regional averages. One important piece came in 2012, when the University of Kansas Cancer Center achieved its long-sought and prized designation as a National Cancer Institute. In the years since, clinical trials have soared by one-third, from 88 launched during calendar year 2011 to 125 in 2017.

It’s hard to overstate the impact that the additional research has made in terms of life-sciences talent for the KC region.

“Over the last 20 years, there has been an influx of talented faculty to the KU Medical Center,” said Richard Barohn, vice chancellor for research. “These are thought leaders in various areas and researchers who can successfully compete for large NIH grants and other grant awards. Once you get these thought leaders, it’s much easier to recruit more of them.”

But the dynamic isn’t strictly limited to the complex bordering Kansas City’s Midtown region, where the work generally focuses on cancer, the neurosciences, nephrology and preventive medicine. While the factors Barohn noted are mainly specific to the KU Medical Center, “there are some bright spots in the region, like the recruitment of John Spertus and his team to Saint Luke’s,” he said. “KU’s Frontiers, our clinical and translational science institute, has helped boost research efforts at the university and in the region, as we have partners from several local institutions.”

Indeed, KU, Saint Luke’s and Children’s Mercy have been anchors for research over the years, with Children’s taking a leading role in clinical trials before the big run-up at other research centers. In 2000, it was involved in more than 40 percent of the clinical trials in the region; that share had fallen to 23.23 percent by last year as other players entered the game.

At Saint Luke’s, a significant step toward expanded research efforts came with the recruitment of Timothy Pluard as medical director for its cancer institute in 2013. His personal story is one that reflects much of the talent piece driving research efforts in the region.

“I wasn’t looking to leave St. Louis; we were in the middle of building the proverbial dream house we always wanted,” Pluard said. “The opportunity came up, and I’ll be honest, I lived on the other side of the state, and had been to Kansas City only a couple of times. But I was really drawn to the opportunity at Saint Luke’s because of the system’s commitment to quality and excellence of patient care in an academic environment with the UMKC affiliation. It was a great opportunity to build a program, and my wife and I were overwhelmed at how open and welcoming Kansas City was. It’s been a fantastic place, professionally and personally.”

While much of the growth has taken place organically, driven by the vision of top executives at key institutions, the region also benefits from a comprehensive civic agenda being set by organizations like BioNexus KC. That’s the new brand of the former Kansas City Area Life Sciences Institute, which helped created a regional vision for life-sciences growth in 2015 with the publication of Path to 2025.

That strategic vision, said BioNexus KC chief executive Wayne Carter, took a much more granular approach to identifying
this region’s life-sciences potential. Rather than an all-encompassing embrace of every aspect of biomedical research, it lasered in on one particular strand of the life-sciences DNA, declaring that “the Kansas City region is a global leader at the nexus of human and animal health benefiting all our citizens and the economy.”

That’s an important distinction, because it addresses an emerging field of scientific research—areas where pharmaceutical advances to treat human illnesses can be applied to pets and livestock, and vice versa. Up to this point, medical research in each realm has largely been siloed from the other.   

“We continue to talk about that nexus and what it means, to get researchers to recognize that there is a counterpart that could present a significant opportunity for them,” Carter said.

Many communities have attempted—without success—to recreate the kinds of conditions that gave rise to Research Triangle Park in North Carolina, known for its advances in research and commercialization of biopharmaceuticals. They failed, say those steeped in life-sciences development, because they didn’t capitalize on their own regional strengths

Carter wants to make sure Kansas City keeps the focus where it has the best chances for long-term success. “That’s what we did with this strategy in Path to 2025: Focus on strengths,” he said. “That means animal health, healthcare IT and outcomes, cancer research and care and neurosciences. We’re putting efforts into those to make sure we can support the life sciences in the region and sustain national growth in this space.”

It’s hard to argue with the results. Compared to where it started from a generation ago, the region is on a roll, and as Pluard noted, for good reason.

“I’m extremely impressed by the energy and the momentum that Kansas City has right now.” He said. “I think it’s really a very tech-savvy community, and is has unbelievable arts. … It’s a gem.”

Work still remains, however, to polish that particular gem.

“The KU Medical Center and the Kansas City region have begun to climb into the big leagues of academic research,” said Barohn. Now, “we have to continue to recruit and train the next generation of re-search faculty to maintain our position as a national leader in academic medicine.”