Big Plans for Kansas City

The Stowers Institute for Medical Research Predictions and plans abound these days concerning Kansas City--that border town straddling Missouri and Kansas known for its jazz, barbecue, and riverboat gambling--as a future leader in biomedical research. But perhaps the most eloquent recent argument that such an ambitious goal might be achieved was a standing ovation given on Nov. 8 by 1,200 of the city's business and scientific community leaders to James E. Stowers Jr. and his wife, Virginia G. St

Nov 27, 2000
Steve Bunk

The Stowers Institute for Medical Research
Predictions and plans abound these days concerning Kansas City--that border town straddling Missouri and Kansas known for its jazz, barbecue, and riverboat gambling--as a future leader in biomedical research. But perhaps the most eloquent recent argument that such an ambitious goal might be achieved was a standing ovation given on Nov. 8 by 1,200 of the city's business and scientific community leaders to James E. Stowers Jr. and his wife, Virginia G. Stowers.

The setting was the Downtown Marriott Hotel, and the occasion was the annual meeting of the Kansas City Area Development Council (KCADC), a business group that has played a key role in forming a nascent Kansas City Area Life Sciences Institute. This not-for-profit organization, which doesn't have its own building and is yet to hire an executive officer, is intended as overseer of a strategy to foster collaborations and resource sharing between the area's private sector, academia, and government. Inspired by the new Stowers Institute for Medical Research--a stunning, $200 million facility endowed by the founder of the mutual funds corporation American Century Cos. and his wife--Kansas City's university and medical leaders have forged alliances and pledged cooperation as the quest for many millions more in funds begins. U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) put it succinctly at the annual meeting: "The anchor, the centerpiece of making this Life Sciences Institute initiative work is the Stowers Institute."

Built on 10 acres, the state-of-the-art complex includes 600,000 square feet of laboratories, animal care facilities, and administrative offices. The first few scientists have been hired, and the doors opened in November, but the grand unveiling is set for spring. On Nov. 8, the day after indoor trees and bushes were planted, there were still no books in the library, but an emphasis on elegance throughout the facility was evident in the fittings of the 11 luxurious suites for visiting scientists, the spacious labs, exercise center, classrooms, and auditorium

Yet, as principals of both the Life Sciences and the Stowers institutes note, first-class facilities alone won't draw the "critical mass" of expertise and technologies needed to vault Kansas City into the biomedical big leagues. Ultimately, the city's grand vision involves a vertical structure of capabilities embracing not only the in vitro and small animal research to be done at the Stowers Institute, but drug discovery and formulation by biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies, clinical trials through to Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval, and the full complement of biomedical education.


Islands of Excellence

Parts of this construct, what Kansas Citians call "islands of excellence," already exist. They are particularly evident among the eight partners in the Life Sciences Institute, including universities, hospitals, and private research organizations. In the academic sector, the University of Kansas Medical Center Research Institute's executive director, Thomas Noffsinger, says his medical school ranks about 60th in the country in National Institutes of Health research dollars received annually. Early next year, ground will be broken for the school's $7 million brain imaging center, which will include technology for imaging of brains as they develop in the womb. Collaborating with the medical school's Center on Aging, its imaging capabilities will extend across the human life span.

The University of Missouri at Kansas City, which has developed strong capabilities in structural biology and molecular genomics in recent years, is considering dual appointments with Stowers in pharmacy and pharmacogenomics. UMKC chancellor Martha W. Gilliland describes planned collaborations as "nested, semipermeable consortia." Marino Martinez-Carrion, dean of biological sciences, points out that homegrown pharmaceutical company Hoechst Marion Roussel sponsored a science education partnership with the university at the start of the 1990s with a $10 million endowment, and in that sense, Stowers Institute is the "second catalyst."

The University of Health Sciences, an osteopathic medical school that traditionally has emphasized clinical training, begins construction in the spring of a $5 million research pavilion. It will focus on fundamental research, public health and epidemiology, and health care outcomes research. The university also is setting up a physicians' practice-based community research network. Recently, UHS hired two mid-career researchers from Chicago Medical School in the Finch University of Health Sciences. Pharmacologist Patricia Hentosh and biochemist Dennis M. Peffley both bring substantial National Cancer Institute (NCI) funding with them. "We probably wouldn't have been able to get them if we hadn't been able to drive them past the Stowers Institute and explain the Life Sciences Institute collaboration," notes dean and vice president for academic affairs James M. Carl.

Among local research organizations, the 56-year-old Midwest Research Institute (MRI) is one of the nation's largest providers of contract research and development services. In biomedicine, its technological capabilities include mass spectrometry and high-throughput screening. MRI president James L. Spigarelli points out that a challenge will be to make the area's institutional collaborations meaningful. "We need core competencies that are complementary, and not competing."

In hospital-based research, St. Luke's Shawnee Mission generates more than $5 million annually in clinical trials funding. Children's Mercy Hospitals and Clinics boast a meticulously designed pediatric research unit for Phase 1 and 2 studies of vaccines, antibiotics, psychiatric drugs, and antivirals. Mercy's 20-bed hematology/oncology unit recently benefited from a $2.3 million NIH grant to continue research on prevention and treatment of graft versus host disease in bone marrow transplant patients.


Big Pharma Presence

In the pharmaceutical arena, Bayer is supplementing its Kansas City agricultural division with a $200 million manufacturing expansion that will allow it to produce two products for humans, a cholesterol-reducing drug and an antibiotic for respiratory diseases. The company has a five-year local growth plan that could exceed $1 billion in expenditures.

Hoechst Marion Roussel is now owned by Aventis, which employs 800 people locally to produce an allergy medication. About 18 months ago, Hoechst Marion Roussel sold its drug development labs in south Kansas City to Quintiles Transnational Corp., which now offers complete contract research services, from the investigational new drug stage through FDA approval. Quintiles almost doubled the facility's employment to more than 800, enabling it to serve about 120 clients, including 30 of the top 50 pharmaceutical companies. In May, it opened a unique center on the site that specifically helps Japanese corporations to earn FDA approval for their drugs.

Danny R. Howard, associate director of biotechnology at Quintiles, says about 20 firms have had their first meeting to set up a Missouri Biotechnology Association. "There's potential for some of these life sciences companies to develop new drugs themselves," he says. He cites AVAX Technologies of Kansas City, which currently has clinical trials under way of vaccines to treat melanoma and ovarian cancer.

Despite such positive signs, Kansas City is still far from becoming a major biomedical cluster. Although the city's research institutions have a total of about $1 billion in expansion projects under way, and $261 million in contracts, almost 80 percent of NIH's more than $20 billion in annual research funding goes to organizations on the east and west coasts. Attorney David A. Welte, cochairman of the KCADC board, noted at the annual meeting, "If you exclude Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri and Kansas are near the bottom of the lists for NIH funding." Howard points out that Missouri is the country's fourth-largest state without a biotechnology association. Even more important, the area has a paucity of such "enabling technologies" as proteomics, genomics, and bioinformatics.

Filling such gaps is the goal of the business plan for the Life Sciences Institute. Its economic modeling suggests that, within a decade, regional research expenditure must be quintupled from its current annual level of $100 million, and 15,000 jobs must be created. The institute intends to raise $300 million over 10 years to invest in people, facilities, and enabling technologies. Five biomedical growth sectors have been identified: human development and aging; neurology; cardiovascular disease; cancer; and infectious disease. Institute members are well aware that, in the country's interior, Michigan is also busily growing its life sciences, and Texas has a strong presence.


Stowers Recruitment

Indeed, Stowers Institute president William B. Neaves arrived from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, where he was a principal architect of life sciences growth for a quarter-century. Already, Neaves has employed his recruiting skills, and some of the institute's $550 million endowment (another $1.5 billion has been pledged by the Stowerses), to hire his first five scientific staff members. Robb Krumlauf, an American developmental biologist, left his post as head of the developmental neurobiology division at England's National Institute for Medical Research to become the Stowers Institute's scientific director. Also on the staff will be his wife, Leanne Wiedemann, a biochemist specializing in leukemia. Two other researchers, James A. Coffman and Linheng Li, come from labs directed by Stowers advisory board scientists, while the fifth, Ting Xie, has just finished a postdoc fellowship at the Carnegie Institution. Four more researchers, who will bring more than 20 staff members with them, are expected to be on board by summer.

The scientific advisory board, which is involved in the hiring process, includes molecular biologist and cancer researcher Eric N. Olson, who himself was recruited by Neaves to UT Southwestern. Neaves smiles at the memory of that effort, which involved intercepting Olson at the airport as he left his job chairing biochemistry at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, to become a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator at Duke University. Neaves convinced Olson that, with the proper assistance, he could chair a department at UT Southwestern and still have time for his own research.

In Kansas City, everyone knows that getting the facilities, the money, and the enabling technology won't be enough for either the Life Sciences initiative or the Stowers Institute, without top-flight people. But NCI director Richard D. Klausner, who was guest speaker at the KCADC annual meeting, sounded like a believer. "I'm very impressed with what I've seen today. You're all saying the right things," he told the audience. "I think their (the Stowerses') vision is remarkable. It has to work, it will work."


Steve Bunk ( is a contributing editor for The Scientist.