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Let’s hit the highlights: news to know from 2021

The pandemic continues, but so does research and education.

The Best of KU Medical Center 2021 text

The world had high hopes that 2021 would be far different from the “historic” and “challenging” and “unprecedented” impact of 2020. At the University of Kansas Medical Center, we’d hoped for, if not an end to the COVID-19 pandemic, a return to normalcy.

Instead, we learned to redefine “normal” as best we could, at least for the time being. “Every day, I continue to be impressed with the resilience of our campus community,” wrote Robert D. Simari, M.D., executive vice chancellor of KU Medical Center.

Below we look back at a few ways the faculty, staff and students of KU Medical Center are moving forward, guided by our strategic plan, despite a worldwide pandemic. While the list is certainly not inclusive of the hundreds of research projects, millions in grant awards and daily efforts in labs and classrooms, here are some key moments to remember about 2021 at KU Medical Center.

 gloved hand holding coronavirus vial

Research continued on the COVID-19 virus. KU Medical Center tested two new monoclonal antibodies that were designed to block the ACE receptor, a protein that enables the virus to enter human cells. Three outpatient treatments (a pill, an injection and an inhaled medication) were part of another clinical trial for the coronavirus. These two clinical trials, and others related to COVID-19, were able to quickly call for potential participants under a unique nationwide clinical trial set-up known as Accelerating COVID-19 Therapeutic Interventions and Vaccines (ACTIV-2).

"We are in a crisis, in a pandemic, and we are working with a limited repertoire of treatments," Castro said in February 2021. Research studies under the ACTIV-2 trial look to broaden that repertoire.

 image of mammogram tech viewing screen

Fear of COVID-19 delayed 9.4 million cancer screenings, research from The University of Kansas Cancer Center found. Early detection of breast, colorectal and prostate cancer is dependent on routine cancer screenings. But 2020, people stopped getting scheduled screenings in response to the pandemic. Just how many appointments were missed was unknown until a study set out to count vacancies on the schedules. Ronald Chen, M.D., MPH, chair of the Department of Radiation Oncology and associate director of Health Equity at The University of Kansas Cancer Center, was first author on the study published in JAMA Oncology.

"As a physician, I wasn't surprised to see that screenings had declined, but this study measures by how much," Chen said. "This study makes it clear that this is a large public health issue." Chen’s research was widely reported in the press to alert the public to recommit to regular screenings.

 Logo of KUARDC on neuron background

The KU Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center was again renewed as a nationally designated center by the National Institute on Aging (NIA) and secured a $15 million, five-year grant. Nearly 6 million Americans suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, and it takes a toll not only on the individual but on caregivers and family. As one of only 31 in the nation designated by the NIA, the KU Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center will continue to advance its nationally renowned research into preserving brain health. Another KU ARDC priority is improving diversity in its clinical trial participants.

"This designation is incredibly important in our efforts to optimize care for patients with dementia in Kansas City and across the state of Kansas, and it will accelerate our ongoing efforts to cure and prevent Alzheimer's disease," said Jeffrey Burns, M.D., co-director of the KU ADRC.

 Photo of Roy Jensen in white coat, seated

The University of Kansas Cancer Center pursued “comprehensive” status from the National Cancer Institute, the highest ranking the NCI offers. Comprehensive cancer centers must demonstrate depth and breadth of research in three areas: the clinic, basic laboratory sciences, and prevention and population health. When hired in 2004, Roy A. Jensen, M.D., director of the KU Cancer Center, said he wanted to obtain NCI-designation status, and the KU Cancer Center’s application was approved in 2012. Jensen’s next goal of comprehensive status pushed a cancer center team through an arduous, 1,726-page application process, and NCI will respond in May 2022.

Staff has been added to make the KU Cancer Center worthy of the NCI’s top ranking. As Teresa Christenson, associate vice chancellor for the center, told the Kansas City Business Journal, “When I first started here in 2005, the entire cancer center staff, it wasn’t even a whole floor, more like a wing of a floor, and I think there were six employees at the time,” Christenson said. “Now, we’re pretty close to 250.”

 Blocks with letters D H A

KU Medical Center researchers discovered that premature births can be dramatically decreased with an inexpensive dietary supplement. Early preterm birth (babies born before 34 weeks gestation) is a public health issue because of the high risk of infant death or lifelong disability for a surviving infant. Researchers from KU Medical Center led a multi-university study of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and they discovered a dose of 1,000 mg was more effective for pregnant women with low DHA levels than 200 mg found in some prenatal vitamins.

"This study tells us that pregnant women should be taking DHA," said Susan E. Carlson, Ph.D., A.J. Rice Professor of Nutrition in the Department of Dietetics and Nutrition, co-principal investigator and first author on the study. "And many would benefit from a higher amount than in some prenatal supplements, particularly if they are not already taking a prenatal vitamin with at least 200 mg DHA or eating seafood or eggs regularly."

 

Frontiers welcomed Joni L. Rutter, Ph.D., acting director of National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS), and discussed how to adapt or “translate” medical research into useful treatments for patients. U.S. Senator Jerry Moran of Kansas and U.S. Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri met with Dr. Rutter and key leaders in government and health care. The group then toured facilities established by a $25 million grant from NCATS, the Frontiers: Clinical and Translational Science Institute at the University of Kansas.

“Through funding from NCATS, Frontiers is accelerating the translation of science in the Midwest,” said Mario Castro, M.D., MPH, principal investigator for Frontiers. “We’re thrilled to have Dr. Rutter and her team visit our region and honored that Senators Blunt and Moran could see how Frontiers is transforming clinical and translational research in our area.”

 3 Students working

U.S. News and World Report ranked KU Medical Center programs as some of the nation’s best. The online publication that ranks colleges and universities yearly placed KU School of Medicine No. 9 in best medical schools for primary care doctors. KU School of Nursing was 22nd on its debut rankings of undergraduate nursing programs and the nurse-midwifery program ranked 11th among public universities' graduate programs. The KU School of Health Professions had five graduate programs ranked in the top 15 among public institutions: physical therapy (No. 6), speech-language pathology (No. 6), occupational therapy (No. 9), audiology (No. 10) and nurse anesthesia (No. 14). 

"The nursing faculty, staff and students can be excited by such a national acknowledgment of their hard work and dedication to quality," said Sally Maliski, Ph.D., RN, FAAN, dean of the KU School of Nursing. "We've had some experience with rankings in some of our graduate programs, but for the undergraduate program to debut this high on the new list — it's a great feeling."

 

"Throughout this pandemic, I have watched with great pride as we have adapted to the ever-changing circumstances in our communities, in our classrooms and on our campuses," Simari said.

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