FRANKFORT – Earlier this fall, the University of Kentucky officially opened a new research facility designed to do one thing: Find new ways to defeat the diseases that take far too many of our loved ones.
The $265 million that built it came from a mixture of state and university funds and private donations, and it has 300,000 square feet of space, which is the equivalent of more than five football fields. Once all six floors are operational, it will house 500 scientists, investigators and students, and they will be at the forefront of the state’s research on cancer, diabetes, heart disease and opioid addiction.
The first researchers to move in the building are focused primarily on cancer, which unfortunately strikes here with more frequency than it does in other states.
When looking at specific cases, we have especially high rates when it comes to lung and colorectal cancers. Nearly 5,000 Kentuckians are diagnosed with lung cancer a year, which is a rate three times higher than what is found in Utah, the state with the lowest percentage of cases.
There is a silver lining when it comes to colorectal cancer, because our rate, like the nation’s, has dropped dramatically since the turn of the century, from 68 out of 100,000 Kentuckians having the disease in 2001 to 51 per 100,000 in 2015. The mortality rate dropped by a third in that relatively short timeframe, which is a testament to early detection and treatment.
If UK’s new research center is the latest step Kentucky has taken to battle these and other diseases, it’s far from being the only one.
Both UK and the University of Louisville, for example, have highly respected cancer-research centers. UK’s has received a prestigious National Cancer Institute designation – one of 70 throughout the country – and that has helped it boost research funding by nearly 50 percent in the last five years alone.
Two U of L researchers, meanwhile, were heavily involved in the world’s first vaccine designed to prevent a type of cancer, and another cancer researcher at the school is using his work in a unique way to potentially find a cure for Alzheimer’s.
UK has one of the nation’s first 10 National Institutes of Health-funded centers focused on that debilitating brain disease, and the university also boasts the nation’s sixth-best pharmacy school. A researcher from that school, in fact, was the developer of an innovative nasal spray that can quickly administer the drug used to reverse heroin and other opioid overdoses. This has saved numerous lives.
Kentucky actually has a long history of being a medical pioneer. Ephraim McDowell, a Danville doctor who successfully removed a large ovarian tumor from a woman on Christmas Day in 1809, is considered a founding father of abdominal surgery, while in more modern times, Louisville was home to the world’s first self-contained artificial heart and the nation’s first successful hand transplant. Other research by our universities has led to significant gains in helping patients with spinal-cord injuries and with Parkinson’s disease.
In addition to Medicaid, one of the main portions of our budget, the state also provides funding for a variety of cancer screenings and sets aside money from the state’s tobacco settlement to fund research and other healthcare-related programs. The public also contributes by buying specialty license plates that provide money to help those with Alzheimer’s, autism, breast cancer, childhood cancer and juvenile diabetes.
As these and other examples show, Kentucky is taking a proactive approach when it comes to tackling the medical issues facing us and others around the world. We may not be able to solve all of them, but with continued research, public education, early detection and quality care, we can continue making a true difference in the lives of many.
If you have any questions about this issue or any other affecting our community or state, you can reach me by email at Rick.Rand@lrc.ky.gov. You can also leave a message on the General Assembly’s toll-free message line, which is staffed during normal business hours. That number is 800-372-7181, and for those with a hearing impairment, it is 800-896-0305.