April 10, 2014

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Article

Fighting the Cancer Battle

Jon M. Huntsman’s Far-reaching Vision for his “Cancer Research Central”

By Gaylen Webb, photos courtesy of Huntsman Cancer Institute

April 10, 2014


Clinic 2D at the Huntsman Cancer Institute is packed with people, but my wait to see Dr. Robert Andtbacka is worth every ounce of patience. As one of approximately 1,500 “entrepreneurial scientists” driving cancer research here, Andtbacka is a melanoma cancer expert who is in high demand.

Entrepreneurial scientist is a description the institute’s principal benefactor, billionaire industrialist Jon M. Huntsman, passionately uses to describe the entrepreneurial mindset that flows through the institute. Huntsman himself is the origin of this mindset—his vision, generosity and tenacity underlie the hub of activity at the institute, which will soon be the largest genetic cancer research center in the world.

On the Vanguard

After more than two decades of scientific entrepreneurialism, Huntsman Cancer Institute already is, in many respects, “cancer research central,” another phrase Huntsman uses to describe the institute’s growth path and influence.

When the latest expansion, the new Primary Children’s and Families’ Cancer Research Center, is complete, the institute will indeed be the largest in the world. The $100 million, 220,000-square-foot addition will double the institute’s research space and deepen its research into cures for familial cancers and genetic childhood cancers like leukemia, sarcoma and brain cancer.

Construction was funded by a combined donation from Huntsman, the Utah State Legislature, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Intermountain Healthcare.

After the Primary Children’s and Families’ Cancer Research Center addition is finished, Huntsman’s next big dream is to create the most advanced women’s cancer center in the world. “We already have tremendous research and success in treating uterine cancer, ovarian cancer and breast cancer,” he explains, “but there are a multitude of different cancers that women can have—many more than men—so our next dream, and we are already quietly working on this, is to pull all the research and treatments for women’s cancers together in the most advanced center in the world.”

What Huntsman envisions is a center at the institute that not only researches and provides therapies for women’s cancers, but also allows women to leave “with a new face and a new body.” Cancers can be terrorizing to men and women, but particularly to women, he explains. “With cancer, women often lose their hair and their shape and form. They also lose their self-confidence, and I think there is a great need to treat the whole woman and not just the cancer. We can assist in their self-confidence, their dignity, their beauty and charm,” he says.

The center would combine the latest research and medical and clinical resources with the latest coaching in self-image, clothing and beauty. “I’ve seen so many lovely women suffer the effects of cancer, even after the disease is defeated,” says Huntsman, who admits his vision might be influenced by the fact that his mother died from breast cancer and his stepmother died from ovarian cancer.

But this is only the tip of the iceberg. With 1,500 scientists working in a collaborative environment, the institute is working to find treatments and cures for multiple cancers and diseases.

By design, all of the institute’s laboratories are connected to each other in an open environment rather than being sequestered in separate units. Together, the laboratories could fill a football field. “With this openness, we know what people are doing and we foster teamwork,” says Huntsman. “We know research for one type of cancer could yield a therapy for a different type of the disease, and our collaboration in an open environment facilitates these discoveries.”

For example, the institute has developed chemotherapy drugs for one type of cancer that turned out to be applicable for other types of the disease. “We have no idea in the development stages what therapies will work across multiple diseases, but that’s the way research is,” he explains. “We have to be flexible. We have to be collaborative and utilize what we have. I think many of the drugs we have available today will, in fact, do a much better job in the future in curing cancer and putting the disease in remission as we are able to combine compounds and test them with respect to other types of cancers.”

Genetic Treasure Trove

Lucky for me and thousands of other cancer patients, Huntsman chose the University of Utah as the home for his namesake cancer research institute in 1999. After all, he could have located it in Durham or Philadelphia or Los Angeles. Duke University wanted it. So did Huntsman’s alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania, and Stanford and USC and many others. And they all offered attractive financial grants and incentives if Huntsman would bring his dollars and the institute to their universities.

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