Health Care

KU Hospital gets record $66 million gift to expand blood cancer treatment

The University of Kansas Hospital unit that treats blood cancers like leukemia and lymphoma is “bursting at the seams,” the head of the division said Thursday.

In the last 10 years, Joseph McGuirk said, his division has gone from performing about 40 bone marrow transplants a year to 300 and become a regional destination for patients who want to try a groundbreaking immunotherapy called CAR-T because they’re out of other treatment options.

“A daily ritual involves finding adequate space for our patients to have their care,” McGuirk said. “These needs are always met, but with increasingly greater creativity on the part of our administrative and nursing leadership.”

McGuirk’s division will soon get a lot more elbow room.

KU Hospital officials announced Thursday that they had received a $66 million gift from the Sunderland Foundation that will allow them to make the last three unoccupied floors of the new Cambridge Tower the home of the Division of Hematologic Malignancies & Cellular Therapy.

It’s the largest single donation ever given to the University of Kansas Health System, which includes the main hospital in Kansas City, Kan., the accompanying medical school on the same campus, and affiliated facilities throughout the state.

The gift pushes the total raised in KU’s Cambridge Tower capital campaign to almost $130 million from 4,887 donations.

Tammy Peterman, KU’s chief operating officer, called the Sunderland gift “transformative,” and CEO Bob Page said the confidence the Sunderland family has shown in KU is “a great honor.”

“We promise to be great stewards of your gift,” Page said in a ceremony Thursday. “And second and more importantly, we promise to make you proud.”

Charles Sunderland, the foundation’s secretary and treasurer, is also a member of the the University of Kansas Hospital Authority Board and said he had a stem cell transplant at the hospital seven years ago. He said he hoped the gift would help make immunotherapy treatments routine for people who right now are often treated with sapping chemotherapy.

“I think CAR-T is not going to be for a limited number of people,” Sunderland said. “As you start looking at the transformation in the technology, it’s going to be a very broad treatment for millions.”

CAR-T immunotherapy involves removing the patient’s own cells, genetically engineering them to fight cancer, and then injecting them back into the patient. They’re individualized treatments that only a handful of institutions in the Midwest are approved to provide because they require a highly trained team of specialists to keep them from going wrong.

They’re also extremely expensive. The treatment KU is approved to provide commercially, Yescarta, retails for almost $400,000.

Because of the cost and regulations, relatively few patients access immunotherapy each year. McGuirk said the new space will allow KU to expand the clinical trials it offers — which are funded by industry and government grants and offered to patients free of charge.

In all, McGuirk expects the expansion to allow the hospital to treat more than 2,500 patients over the next 10 years.

Greg Graves, the chairman of the hospital authority board, said gifts like the Sunderland Foundation’s are critical to advancing medical science. Making sure everyone is getting basic medical care is a broader societal responsibility.

“We also need to move the country forward to make sure everybody has a flu shot and access to that,” Graves said.

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