Named in honor of its founder the late Terry C. Johnson, the Johnson Center for Basic Cancer Research at K-State has been working to fight cancer for 30 years. Johnson was a former university distinguished professor and director of K-State's Division of Biology.
In 1980, through Johnson's efforts, the center was designated by the Kansas Legislature. Now, 30 years later, the center serves as a hub to 70 faculty researchers from five colleges and 12 different departments throughout campus.
"It is unique to have a cancer center at a university without a medical school," said Marcia Locke, public relations and outreach coordinator for the Johnson Center. "At the Johnson Center we're focused on basic research, which provides the foundation for clinical research and clinical trials. You have to have the basic research before you can ever move on to treating anyone."
The Johnson Center stands on its three main pillars -- research, education and outreach -- as it pursues its vision to conquer cancers in our time, Locke said. The center provides financial assistance to support ongoing and new research cancer-related projects by K-State faculty. Since the center opened in 1980 it has provided $1.1 million in Innovative Research Awards, $286,000 in equipment grants, $44,000 in travel fellowships, $370,000 in Cancer Research Mentor Awards and $200,000 for a cancer center assistant professorship.
These programs wouldn't be possible without the generous support of donors throughout the K-State community, Locke said. "We are able to use 100 percent of all donations toward our programs, and support K-State faculty and students, the Manhattan and Kansas community, and cancer research all at once," she said.
The Johnson Center also provides education and training opportunities for K-State students. Through its Cancer Research Award program, the center has provided more than $775,000 for 738 undergraduate students to perform research in a lab setting. Fifty $1,000 awards are available each year to students who wish to pursue a cancer-related research project, and another $1,000 goes to each faculty mentor to support the cost of their student's research.
"This is a $100,000 program to encourage undergraduate participation in laboratories and get students to start thinking early about research as a possible career," Locke said. "We're an important part of K-State's excellence in providing opportunities for undergraduate students to do real laboratory research. We're very proud of this program, and we consider it as helping to train the next generation of cancer researchers, doctors and nurses."
In the past decade the center has seen tremendous growth in financial support and an increase in affiliated researchers, thanks to the direction and guidance of Rob Denell, university distinguished professor of biology and director of the Johnson Center. Since 2003, 40 new faculty members have joined the Johnson Center as affiliated researchers.
"This has resulted in a far broader and more multidisciplinary approach to cancer research on campus," Denell said. "This multidisciplinary approach has led to a high level of collaboration between scientists across campus."
The Johnson Center now has 18 scientists from the physical sciences -- physics, biochemistry, chemistry and chemical engineering -- who are now collaborating and sharing their special cancer research with other departments across campus.
"That's one of our jobs: to try to get people to work together in ways that they didn't envision in order to push things forward," Denell said.
Denell said he believes the next 30 years will show incredible gains in the fight against cancer, especially with the use of genetic research and nanotechnology.
"Cancer is usually a genetic change that takes place in our bodies," he said. "All the things that you hear about that cause cancer do that by making gene changes that lead to cancer. There's a huge effort right now to understand exactly what the genetic changes are in order to better understand how to more effectively diagnose and treat cancer."
Nanotechnology is experiencing promising research gains and increased interest by the National Cancer Institute, according to Denell. A nanometer is extremely small: one-billionth of a meter. Using this technology, small constructs or machines can be developed that will be guided to tumors, allowing for imaging, delivery of drugs and metabolic monitoring. K-State has a strong nanotechnology program and a number of faculty members are applying nanotechnology to cancer-related research, Denell said.
This includes a group of researchers in the College of Veterinary Medicine led by Deryl Troyer, professor of anatomy and physiology, studying stem cells that come from the interior of the umbilical cord. These stem cells show the ability to home in on tumors, and it has been proven in early research that without even carrying a cancer drug, the cells have the ability to reduce the size of tumors. By using nanotechnology, the stem cells can direct nano-constructs to the tumors where they can then take images of the tumor, treat the tumor and monitor the effect of chemotherapy and other kinds of treatment.
The Johnson Center also remains dedicated to cancer outreach and stays involved with the community through presentations, events and other activities to educate people about cancer and reducing their risk of developing or succumbing to it.
The center offers special publications, like "A Day with Dr. Waddle," an activity book written by the staff to help explain cancer, science and good health habits to children. In addition, the center helps publish "When a Friend Has Cancer…," a booklet created by a local group of cancer survivors, nurses and others that offers ideas for giving practical help and emotional support to loved ones facing cancer.
More information about the center, including how to contribute to its fight against cancer, is available at http://cancer.k-state.edu/.