The Next Phase for Markey

former ukhc evpha Dr. Michael Karpf


In 2013, the UK Markey Cancer Center earned the state’s only National Cancer Institute designation. Then in September 2023, Markey achieved yet another accolade and became an NCIdesignated Comprehensive Cancer Center, the highest level of designation NCI awards.

These milestones were not by happenstance, though. From its inception, Markey was intended for great things… not for its own sake but for the welfare of Kentuckians who, until then, had to look outside the borders of the Bluegrass for care.

Still, it was not without many years of struggle and triumph, according to many of the distinguished doctors and researchers who played pivotal roles in elevating Markey. The mission for Markey was always clear: the healthcare system would be competitive at the highest level and would recruit highly skilled doctors and researchers to provide the best care for patients in the region.

When former Executive Vice President for Health Affairs (EVPHA) Michael Karpf, M.D., was hired around 2003, the state lacked a “certain level of medical care, and Kentuckians did not have access to the best advanced subspecialty care,” he said. “[Markey] was competing with the community rather than augmenting the community by bringing in services the community could not provide.”

Dr. Karpf said his goal was to put effort into developing a cancer center that would get a “hallmark” designation: the prestigious National Cancer Institute designation for research.

Recruiting Special Forces

Native Kentuckian and UK College of Medicine alum, Joseph Zwischenberger, M.D., (known as Dr. Zwisch), embarked on a 30-year career journey in several states before being recruited by Dr. Karpf and Jay Perman, M.D., former dean of the UK College of Medicine and vice president for clinical affairs, in 2007. By then, Dr. Karpf’s vision was on the verge of coming to fruition – the university was regionalized and academic-based, but Dr. Zwisch, as UK professor of surgery, chairman of surgery, and surgeon-in-chief of UK HealthCare, trusted his intuition and invested in the vision.

A top recruit would change Markey’s future, and one candidate quickly rose to the top.

In 2008, Hurricane Ike tore through the community of Galveston, Texas, destroying the University of Texas Medical Branch’s (UTMB) labs and medical center where Mark Evers, M.D., a surgical oncologist, led a group of highly successful researchers. Coincidentally, Dr. Zwisch had been employed by UTMB for 21 years before coming to UK, and he proposed Dr. Evers as a top candidate after the devastation UTMB had suffered.

In order to attract such a talent, Dr. Karpf, Dr. Perman, Frederick C. de Beer, M.D., former chair of the Department of Internal Medicine, and Dr. Zwisch would have to combine resources to build a competitive package.

The issue for UK was that Dr. Evers came with stipulations – a team of 10 NIH-funded investigators, which would require momentous resources from UKHC. To hire Dr. Evers meant offering, collectively, 40 recruits to move north to Kentucky. “After much consideration, UK leadership and department chairs realized,” said Dr. Zwisch.

dr. joseph zwischenberger“This was a brilliant, once-in-alifetime chance to suddenly have a crucible of investigators and a leader that could potentially build us into a competitive center.”

Joseph Zwischenberger, M.D.

The core group was flown to Lexington from Galveston, were interviewed, and all accepted as a “package deal” to move with Dr. Evers. “Here they were on an island that a hurricane had just destroyed,” said Dr. Zwisch. “Their homes were flooded. Their labs were decimated. The rebuilding process that was promised was going to be slow in coming, and now their leader was being recruited to a major university with a big package deal.”

The rest was history; the investigators were organized in different departments to align with NCI’s expectations for designation and Dr. Evers reported to the EVPHA, the dean, and the provost. Within a very short time, the team recruited several major investigators from the University of Louisville, and the whole team received NCI Cancer Center Designation in just five years from their arrival in Lexington. By 2023, the team earned the coveted Comprehensive Cancer Center Designation, due to continuous support from both the university and UKHC, as well as internal and prolific external funding in grants and philanthropy.

A Deep Commitment to the Mission

As the director of the UK Markey Cancer Center, Dr. Evers is known as the “mission personified,” according to colleague and friend Dr. Zwisch. “Evers is a talented surgical oncologist who understood patient care as well as the depth and the multifaceted aspects of achieving the NCI designation,” he said. “He understood the relationship between patient care, research, leadership, resources, alignment with the university and state, and the clinicians in the network.”

Dr. Evers continues to drive plans to build upon Markey’s comprehensive status, always with Kentuckians’ well-being at heart. Today, Markey is a leader in precision medicine, with a multidisciplinary tumor board, marrying surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy and immunological approaches.

Dr. Karpf describes Dr. Evers as a leader with humility and a model work ethic. “The boss is working harder than everybody, and he is incredibly supportive of the people that he recruits,” said Dr. Karpf.

“He develops his people and mentors them to become independently funded investigators. He is committed to excellence and puts his heart and soul into it.”

Michael Karpf, M.D.

The team at Markey has achieved two of its major goals, and the next one is to become a Top 25 cancer program in the country, according to Dr. Karpf. The likelihood of his vision seems more than possible with the team in place at the Markey Cancer Center.

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