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State Sen. Mark Kolterman hopes the state will allocate $15 million and private donors will provide another $15 million to fight the disease that took his wife’s life.
Suzanne Kolterman died in November 2017 of pancreatic cancer, a disease that crept up on her with little notice. By the time it was diagnosed, she had advanced cancer and only 18 months to live.
The senator said his legislative bill, which was heard Tuesday by the Appropriations Committee, isn’t about him. He already endured his wife’s death and there’s no going back.
But Kolterman, of Seward, would like to see the University of Nebraska Medical Center receive a big chunk of money for pancreatic cancer research so that the disease can be detected earlier and, possibly, cured. The money would bolster a program that already is known nationally for pancreatic cancer research.
The committee hearing made it evident that Kolterman’s proposal has competition. At least three other programs sought money from the state’s health care cash fund Tuesday, and more than 20 already are drawing a total of at least $61 million from it this year. Members of the committee said they want to be cautious in the use of that fund. State Sen. Anna Wishart of Lincoln asked Kolterman if there were other sources of money for his concept.
“I know it’s a big ask,” Kolterman said of his request. “I appreciate the fact that we’re dealing with limited funds.”
UNMC is one of three National Cancer Institute Specialized Programs of Research Excellence (SPORE) in pancreatic cancer. The two others are the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota and Washington University in St. Louis.
Kolterman’s bill, Legislative Bill 669, would draw $15 million from the state’s health care cash fund. UNMC would have to raise $15 million in matching money from donors before receiving the state funds.
The National Cancer Institute says SPORE programs “must demonstrate a high degree of collaboration between first-rate scientists and clinicians” and show excellence in translational research, which moves a project from the lab to the patient clinic.
UNMC is working on treatments, earlier detection and other elements in the fight against pancreatic cancer. The American Cancer Society said the five-year survival rate for pancreatic cancer from 2008-14 was the lowest — 9 percent — of all of the cancers listed.
The society estimated that 270 Nebraskans and 480 Iowans will die of pancreatic cancer this year. Nationwide, the estimate is 45,750.
UNMC is near the conclusion of a five-year grant of $11.5 million for pancreatic cancer research through the federal SPORE initiative.
“We’re known nationally as being a center” for pancreatic cancer research, said Michael “Tony” Hollingsworth, a professor and pancreatic-disease scientist at UNMC.
Among those who spoke Tuesday in support of Kolterman’s proposal were Shirley Young, whose husband, Jim (Union Pacific’s CEO), died of pancreatic cancer in 2014; UNMC Chancellor Jeffrey Gold, whose father, Arthur, died of the disease in 2012; and UNMC oncologist James Armitage, whose wife, Nancy, died of it in 2017.
“I really think this is an opportunity to do something important,” Armitage said in an interview.
Former U.S. Sen. Bob Kerrey also testified in favor of Kolterman’s proposal.
Kolterman said he wants UNMC to maximize its strength in pancreatic cancer research. “The point is, we have a gem in our backyard here in Nebraska,” Kolterman said in an interview early this week.
He said UNMC physicians and staffers gave his wife good care, and she lived much longer than the Mayo Clinic suggested she would.
“We had a wonderful 18 months,” he said. The Koltermans took three grandchildren to Hawaii in August 2017.
“She promised them she would take them there, and she fulfilled her promise,” he said.
While his grandchildren call him Grandpa, he said, they had an unusual name for their grandmother. He fondly recalled that they just called her Kolterman.