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In our opinion: Huntsman Center expansion to make Salt Lake a leader in cancer research

Published: Sunday, Nov. 3 2013 11:50 p.m. MST

Jon Huntsman Sr. pauses at the Huntsman Cancer Institute in Salt Lake City Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2011.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

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Jon Huntsman Sr. says his dream is "…to have Salt Lake City be regarded as the medical science center of the world." There is now even more of a reason to believe that dream can come true, and that Utah's capital city can lead the way in winning a war on cancer that was officially launched during the administration of President Richard M. Nixon in 1971.

Late last week the philanthropist and industrialist announced a large expansion to the Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah — one that will fill 220,000 square feet and allow researchers to focus on the cancers that affect families, and particularly children. The expansion is projected to cost about $100 million and is made possible by generous support from Intermountain Health Care, the Utah Legislature and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (which owns this newspaper). The church's support will be reflected in the name of the new wing, called the Primary Children's and Families' Research Center.

No one should doubt the value of the Huntsman Cancer Institute, not only to the patients it serves, but to Salt Lake City and the state of Utah. The more the center grows in size and reputation, the more it adds to the quality of life in the area, leading to better health and to economic development.

Salt Lake City is uniquely poised to lead the world in cancer research because it is home to the world's largest population genetic database, housed at the Huntsman Institute. This database, aided by the passion for genealogical research that exists within the church and among many Utahns, now contains 18 million records of births, deaths, marriages and health information that spans centuries.

To put it in perspective, the institute says the next largest comparable database of this nature exists in the mostly homogenous island nation of Iceland, and it contains fewer than 100,000 records.

The database helps researchers understand how cancers are inherited in families, allowing them to better unlock genetic mutations that cause the disease. It gives them the kind of information that will help develop prevention methods, better screening and strategies for treatment.

Cancer remains a relentless killer, and its prevalence is growing among all age groups. The institute's materials say one person dies from it every minute in the United States, and half of all men and one-third of all women will be diagnosed with some form of it during their lifetimes.

And yet, it is instructive to ponder how far the nation has come in its fight against cancer since Nixon declared war 42 years ago. Survival rates have increased dramatically, as has understanding of the disease, its many forms and its genetic properties.

A nation whose people have become conditioned to expect miracles from scientific research that has, for more than a century, successfully eradicated frightening diseases, should expect the same from work on cancer. And they should expect much of the progress toward that end to take place at the Huntsman Cancer Institute in Salt Lake City.

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