LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) -- The University of Kentucky's cancer center received a significant boost in status Friday by winning designation as a National Cancer Institute facility, giving the Bluegrass state new clout in its fight against a disease that kills Kentuckians at a higher rate than anywhere else in the country.
The prestigious title for the UK Markey Cancer Center in Lexington brings with it the potential for millions of dollars in additional research funding. The designation means its patients will have access to new drugs, treatment options and clinical trials offered only at NCI centers.
The announcement was cause for celebration in a state stricken with the nation's highest per-capita cancer death rates and second-highest overall rates of cancer cases.
"We want Kentucky to be a leader in fighting and curing this unforgiving disease, not the national leader in cancer deaths, which we are now," said U.S. Rep. Harold "Hal" Rogers. "And this NCI designation is a vital step toward that goal."
The Markey Cancer Center's director, Dr. Mark Evers, called the designation an important milestone but said it's "not the final destination."
"We will not rest until the unacceptable high cancer rates are decreased, so that more Kentuckians can enjoy more birthdays," he said.
Earning the designation had been a top goal since Evers arrived at the center in 2009.
The Markey Center becomes the 68th medical center in the country to earn the title and is the only NCI-designated cancer center in Kentucky.
The NCI distributed nearly $3.9 billion in federal grants in 2011. Roughly $265 million were support grants earmarked solely for NCI-designated cancer centers, ranging from $720,000 in Hawaii to $13.5 million to New York. The following year, the NCI distributed $274.9 million in grants sent to those NCI-designated centers.
NCI is part of the federal Department of Health and Human Services. Its designated cancer centers are recognized as leaders in new discoveries into cancer's causes, prevention, diagnosis and treatment.
UK President Eli Capilouto, who made the official announcement, said the designation will strengthen the Markey Center's potential "to roll back this scourge in Kentucky."
Gov. Steve Beshear, who had a bout with prostate cancer years ago and was treated at the Markey Center, said the title will help UK lure top-notch medical researchers.
"This is a bold declaration that Kentucky can and will do something about the high cancer rates that have plagued our people over the years," he said.
Sally Leukefeld of Lexington was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008 and received her treatment at the Markey Center.
"That was a scary diagnosis, and my first thought was, 'This is it,'" she said. "And my second thought was, 'I don't want to be pitiful.' And you know, I didn't have to worry about either of those things, because I was at the Markey Cancer Center."
She later joined a patient advisory group at the center that included patients and caregivers.
"This place is dedicated to taking care of us, to making things as good as they can be for us and bringing us out on the other end where I am now, which is five years and clear as a bell, and so very grateful," she said.
The UK center's rising national status comes amid consistently grim statistics showing the suffering caused by cancer in the Bluegrass state.
Kentucky ranks first nationally in cancer deaths per 100,000 people, according to data released by the Markey Center.
More than 25,000 new cancer cases were diagnosed in Kentucky last year. The state's overall rate of cancer incidence is about 11 percent higher than the national rate, and its overall cancer death rate is about 18 percent higher than the U.S. rate, the figures showed.
The suffering is more pervasive in the state's Appalachian region, where the cancer death rate is about 27 percent higher than the national rate, the figures showed.
Kentucky leads the nation for rates of lung, colon and oral cavity cancers and was second for incidence of kidney cancer, third for brain cancer and eighth for cervical cancer, according to the statistics.
The Markey Center treated more than 3,000 new patients in the past year and has nearly 75,000 total patient visits annually. The center has more than 200 clinical trials currently under way, and its researchers were awarded more than $5.3 million in new grants in the past year.
UofL President James Ramsey has issued a statement about Friday’s announcement:
“Congratulations to the University of Kentucky, Dr. Capilouto and his team on gaining NCI designation. We look forward to continued collaboration with UK as we work together to fight lung and other cancers and improve the health of all Kentuckians.”