$2.4M Grant Fuels Transformative Cancer Research at The University of Kansas Cancer Center

January 11, 2024

Ronald Chen, MD Cover Image

Dr. Ronald Chen discusses the importance of translational research, which takes promising lab discoveries to patients through clinical trials, at the KU Clinical Research Center.

The University of Kansas Cancer Center recently received a prestigious $2.4 million grant from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) to help grow the next generation of cancer researchers. Being awarded the Calabresi Career Development Award for Clinical Oncology K12 is a testament to KU Cancer Center’s commitment to advancing translational research – the crucial link between basic science and its practical application in clinical settings. 

Spearheading this transformative program is Ronald Chen, MD, MPH, chair of Radiation Oncology and associate director for health equity at KU Cancer Center. We chatted with Dr. Chen to learn more about the grant’s significance and benefits to patients across the region. 

What is translational research and why is it important?
Translational research takes new laboratory discoveries and begins evaluation in human patients. For example, let’s say there is a new cancer drug that looks promising in laboratory experiments when it’s used in petri dishes and animals like mice. The next phase in the development of this drug – when it moves from the laboratory into the clinic to begin early testing in patients – is an example of translational research. This is important because, in my view, the goal of cancer research is to improve cancer patients’ lives. Therefore, when laboratory research “translates” to the clinic to help patients is where the biggest impact can be made.

How does the grant help boost KU Cancer Center’s translational research efforts?
The K12 award is more than just a financial boost. It's a comprehensive institutional training grant designed to nurture and propel the careers of future clinical and translational scientists. The National Cancer Institute chose KU Cancer Center for this training program from a large pool of applicants from around the country.

Our goal is clear – to equip the next generation of healthcare professionals, including physicians, nurses and pharmacists, with the skills and knowledge they need to conduct impactful research. This initiative is not only a testament to our commitment to bridging the gap between research and improving cancer treatments for patients but is also a recognition of the expertise KU Cancer Center has in cancer translational research. 

You trained under a K award program 14 years ago. How did it help shape your career?
The NCI’s K awards program provides support for early-career scientists and clinicians to develop independent careers in cancer research. When I started my career as an assistant professor, I realized I needed additional research training. I participated in a K award training program that included taking classes and conducting research and was provided with a team of outstanding mentors. Participating in this program taught me many tangible skills, helped me grow as a researcher and had a major impact in launching my academic career. Since then, I have helped lead multiple clinical trials to improve cancer treatments, published more than 250 scientific publications and received more than $20 million in research funding. 
Research indicates K awardees are more likely to secure subsequent funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the NCI. On average, awardees also contribute more to scientific literature through their research publications compared to non-awardees.

What should K12 trainees expect as part of the program?
Program participants will have the unique opportunity to learn from nearly 50 translational research and clinical trial experts, as well as collaborate with patient research advocates. Additionally, they will gain access to the Institute for Advancing Medical Innovation, the University of Kansas Medical Center’s renowned proof-of-concept center and product development arm led by Dr. Scott Weir. As part of our K12 training program, participants will not only acquire essential skills in translational research but will also create their own clinical trials. 

I learned a difficult lesson as a new assistant professor. I participated in a highly selective workshop to write new clinical trials, and I designed a clinical trial to test a new way to treat prostate cancer. However, because the cost of conducting the clinical trial was so high and I did not have enough research funding at that time, my trial never became a reality. 

At the KU Clinical Research Center, which is supported by JCERT funding, we get to make those clinical trials a reality. As we launch this new K12 program to train the next generation of cancer researchers who will design a clinical trial, the ongoing JCERT support helps ensure these good ideas come to fruition and improve patient outcomes. 

How will this benefit patients in the region?
Although we have made great strides in cancer research over the last 50 years, we need to make more progress. There is a shortage of translational researchers who can take the most promising laboratory discoveries and bring them to patients through clinical trials. Progress in translational research and clinical trials can improve cancer cure rates and reduce treatment side effects. This new K12 program at KU Cancer Center will help equip more of our cancer health professionals with necessary research skills, further increasing the number of clinical trials we offer that directly benefit patients in this region.