April 10, 2014

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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

It seems strange that with no matching grants or financial incentives from the state of Utah or the University of Utah, Huntsman and his family would generously invest some $400 million to grow the institute in Utah. But there’s no mystery where 76-year-old Huntsman is concerned. The four-time cancer survivor speaks ardently about genetic cancer research and Utah’s best kept secret: genealogical research.

“The principle reason we put the Huntsman Cancer Institute in Salt Lake City,” he reflects, “was to take advantage of the genealogical background and family history work here. Records for more than 7 million individuals—back three, four, five, even six generations—have now become part of the Utah Population Database, a highly unique resource that the Huntsman Cancer Institute helped develop, which our researchers use to analyze cancer through genealogical lines and family histories.”

Utah is unique, Huntsman explains, because it would be outrageously expensive to replicate the genetic and family history data available here—even for big cancer centers like Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York or the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. In fact, it would be virtually impossible, he says, to bring in millions of people and make their genealogy work and medical histories available to researchers. “It’s a financial impossibility. Because of this data in Utah, we have an enormous and very favorable jumpstart over everyone else in the world for genetic research.”

Armed with family history information, medical patterns and genetic data, the institute’s researchers have an ideal background for cancer research. “With this enormous amount of information available to us, we feel we can unlock some of the key answers in medical science, not only for cancer but for other diseases,” he says. “By linking genealogies and medical histories we are able to see the proclivity to have a predisposed gene that would indicate a specific type of disease.”

In its genetic research, the institute’s researchers have discovered more mutations for inherited cancer than any other center in the world, and new research shows that siblings and parents of children who get cancer have a 50 percent higher risk of developing the disease themselves. Huntsman believes such findings will one day allow the institute to establish early-stage examinations and early cancer detection for siblings and family members.

“This is a great breakthrough. Our scientists have been working on this for many years, and there have been other related breakthroughs in prostate cancer and multiple myeloma,” he explains.

A Global Center

In addition to its focus on genetic cancers, Huntsman says the institute is ideally equipped to become a significant global center for all types of clinical research, and other cancer institutes around the world are taking notice. He recently received a call from the Mayo Clinic, which is interested in partnering with the institute on a large research project. And Dr. Ronald DePhinho, president of MD Anderson Cancer Center, came to visit. “Our peers have the greatest respect for what we are doing and they are fascinated by how fast we are growing when other cancer centers are being limited by funding challenges,” Huntsman says.

But that’s not all. Health ministers and political leaders from South America, Asia, the Middle East and Europe are also calling. Huntsman sees this as an opportunity to extend the institute’s knowledge and influence globally. The countries want help constructing modern cancer hospitals where they can provide inpatient and outpatient care, and they are willing to pay the institute for its help.

“They want to be on the cutting edge and have the latest state-of-the-art technology and research,” he says, “so our concept is to develop teams that can assist them by sharing our research and treatment therapies. For example, cancer is an epidemic in China, and it needs 100 or 200 cancer hospitals throughout the country. So the opportunity is extensive.”

Some of those hospitals might even bear the Huntsman name as part of a global network of the finest cancer care centers, he says, but only if they have the latest state-of-the-art facilities, therapeutics and education centers. It’s essential that they have enough doctors and trained specialists to utilize the institute’s research and apply it to patients.

The institute is also talking to several major pharmaceutical firms about creating partnerships to develop drugs for stage-three clinical trials that the pharmaceutical companies “should be extremely interested in, regardless of the fact they have research arms themselves,” Huntsman notes. “Those partnerships will happen because of our expertise, our research and our historical data.”

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