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Donald Hall, family foundation pledge $75 million for medical research building

Updated: 2013-09-05T04:03:16Z

By ERIC ADLER

The Kansas City Star

Donald J. Hall and the Hall Family Foundation on Wednesday announced that they would commit $75 million for a new medical research building at Children’s Mercy Hospital, but only if voters in November approve a half-cent sales tax geared to raise $800 million for such research over 20 years.

“In the history of every city there are milestones that shape its direction and its character,” Bill Hall, president of the Hall Family Foundation, said at a news conference. “In our opinion, that is where we stand today.”

The foundation recognizes that the proposed tax increase “is asking a great deal of the voters of Jackson County,” he said. “However, we believe this is a moment we must seize. The tax is transformational. If it is passed, we will look back and say it helped shape our city.”

The Jackson County Legislature last week voted 7-2 to place the tax — which in some parts of the county would increase the overall sales tax to more than 10 percent — on the Nov. 5 ballot.

If passed, the tax would raise raise $40 million annually, with $20 million per year supporting work and salaries of researchers at Children’s Mercy and $8 million each for St. Luke’s Hospital and the University of Missouri-Kansas City. The rest would be used for related economic development, such as training at the Metropolitan Community Colleges.

“These are three great institutions,” said Donald Hall, chairman of Hallmark Cards Inc. and the family foundation. “We’re here because we believe they can take another great step forward, a big one.”

Of the $75 million, one-third would come from Donald Hall personally and the rest from the foundation. As currently conceived, the Translational Medicine Institute of Jackson County would occupy 80,000 square feet on two floors of a four-story building to be constructed on the site currently occupied by the Children Mercy’s parking garage, with planning and construction taking about three years. The two other floors would be shells awaiting further development.

“Translational” refers to the process of taking basic research and translating that knowledge into drugs or devices to diagnose or treat patients.

Civic leaders attending the news conference included Julie Quirin, chief executive of St. Luke’s Hospital; UMKC Chancellor Leo Morton; Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders; Peter Levi, former president of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce; Randall O’Donnell, president and chief executive of Children’s Mercy; and Jack Ovel, president of Bank of America’s Kansas City market and the hospital’s board chairman.

Supporters said the institute not only would be an engine for jobs and economic development, but also would enhance Kansas City’s reputation and role in medical research and growing health markets.

“The generational impact and the impact on our community will be enormous and cannot be underestimated,” Sanders said. “But it’s also smart from a business standpoint to invest in one of the largest growing areas, infrastructure areas, in the world economy. That is medical research.”

But opposition to the tax also is rising.

The League of Women Voters of Kansas City, Mo., Jackson, Clay and Platte Counties has come out against the tax as regressive and putting a greater burden on the poor. Medical researchers have other sources of funding, the league says.

“The league is going to keep its voice out there on this one,” said Linda Vogel Smith, the organization’s president. “If you are an average family in Kansas City and you spend $1,000 a month on taxable items, you will be spending $5 a month for this tax. That doesn’t seem like much, but it is on top of other taxes. If you’re spending capacity is at that level, that $5 might be important for a day of school lunch for your kids, for buying a gallon of milk. … If you’re Don Hall, you never had to worry about that $5 a month.”

Leaders of the Kansas City Regional Transit Alliance, although they are not campaigning against the sales tax proposal, have questioned its timing. The group originally hoped to place its own proposal for a one-cent sales tax on the November ballot in support of commuter rail, but the ballot initiative has been postponed.

Opposition to the tax also is coming from Brad Bradshaw, a Springfield-based lawyer and physician who favors a statewide medical research tax over one limited to Jackson County. Bradshaw, who also has offices in Kansas City and who graduated from UMKC’s law and medical schools, has put up more than $100,000 to sponsor TV ads against the tax, and he promises to raise more for billboards and a website.

“The idea that a mere two floors in one building will lead to meaningful research is preposterous,” Bradshaw, 52, said by phone. “Finding cures will require hundreds of millions of dollars in startup money, multiple buildings and several research facilities. This can only be accomplished with statewide support.”

Supporters, including the Civic Council of Greater Kansas City, plan to launch an estimated $1 million campaign to persuade voters that funding more medical research in Kansas City will result in leading-edge medical products, technologies and remedies that can save lives. They estimate it could bring upward of $600 million in direct and indirect economic benefits to the area in the first decade.

Wednesday’s pledge came the same day the National Institutes of Health said it would provide a $5.9 million grant to help develop one of Children’s Mercy’s most successful diagnostic technologies for broader use in neonatal intensive care units nationwide.

The Stat-Seq technology, meaning fast sequencing, essentially takes a blood sample from a newborn and, using a high-speed genetic sequencer to read the genes of an infant’s DNA, looks for mutations to help home in on any number of the 7,000 genetic diseases that affect children, many of which can be rare and difficult to diagnose.

About 30 percent of children in neonatal intensive care units are there because of genetic illnesses. More than 500 genetic diseases are treatable. Whereas it typically takes weeks to decode a child’s DNA, delaying treatments and causing agonizing worry for parents, the Children’s Mercy technology can find answers in as little as 50 hours.

The technology was developed by researcher Stephen Kingsmore, director of Children’s Mercy’s Center for Pediatric Genomic Medicine. At the news conference Wednesday, Children’s Mercy physician Sarah Soden introduced Earl and Angela McWilliams of Kansas City.

Their story was presented as an example of the kind of benefit that translational medical research can have for real parents and patients.

Millie was born severely disabled 8 years ago. Unable to walk well, she moves in a wheelchair, cannot talk and has other severe cognitive delays.

Doctors knew she had something rare, but for seven years her disorder could not be pinpointed. At the hospital, physicians entered Millie in a study that allowed them to screen a significant portion of her DNA. Through that study, they discovered she had a mutation in one gene known as ASXL3. It was that gene mutation, known to exist in fewer than 10 people worldwide, that had caused Millie’s difficulties.

The discovery did not offer a treatment or cure, but it nonetheless provided the McWilliamses with an explanation.

“It’s actually a relief,” Angela McWilliams said. “It might sound strange. It is a relief to actually know and put a name on whatever is going on. It was such a long, turbulent road.”

The research that helped Millie later was used to help Children’s Mercy develop a new diagnostic tool called TaGSCAN, for Targeted Gene Sequencing and Custom Analysis. With TaGSCAN, physicians can now use DNA to screen older children for some 750 diseases that that are the result of a defect in a single gene.

To be sure, translational research is not new to Kansas City. It and other basic research have been a focus of the Stowers Institute for Medical Research since it opened its first laboratory on its 10-acre campus on 50th Street in 2000. In that time, according to the institute website, more than $900 million has been poured into research conducted by some 20 principal investigators, 64 other scientists and 80 post-doctoral researchers and fellows.

Stowers, which would receive no direct economic benefit from the half-cent sales tax increase, said in a statement:

“The Stowers Institute believes that translational medicine is an important complement to basic research in the development of new treatments and diagnostics. The Institute’s researchers currently collaborate with a broad range of local, national and international experts in translational medicine. Adding regional expertise in translational medicine would serve to enhance our area’s capabilities in life sciences.”

In 2010, the University of Kansas Medical Center received a $20 million Clinical and Translational Science Award from the National Institutes of Health to fund translational research projects with partners that include, among others, Children’s Mercy, St. Luke’s and UMKC.

To reach Eric Adler, call 816-234-4431 or send email to eadler@kcstar.com.

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