This is a really, really important advance for Huntsman Cancer Institute. It's a really important advance for the state of Utah. It's a really important advance for the Intermountain West, and it's a really important advance for the national cancer program —CEO Mary Beckerle
SALT LAKE CITY — Recruitment of nearly three dozen professionals, doubling in size and planning more expansion to accommodate even more research have the Huntsman Cancer Institute on top of its game.
And that all happened in the past five years.
Thursday, the local facility was given comprehensive cancer center status, the highest designation from the National Cancer Institute, an agency of the National Institutes of Health that oversees cancer research and treatment throughout the country.
CEO Mary Beckerle called the new designation "a really big deal for all the people who live in this vast geographical region of our country." Prior to Thursday's announcement, she said, the nearest comprehensive-designated facility was either in Denver, Colorado, or on the California coast.
The Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah is the only cancer center in the Intermountain West to reach the top designation and serves people in 17 percent of the country's landmass in Utah, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and Nevada.
It joins distinguished cancer centers such as at Memorial Sloan-Kettering in New York, MD Anderson in Texas, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute at Harvard University, Johns Hopkins' Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center and the Mayo Clinic Cancer Center, recognized among the top cancer centers in the world.
"This is a really, really important advance for Huntsman Cancer Institute. It's a really important advance for the state of Utah. It's a really important advance for the Intermountain West, and it's a really important advance for the national cancer program," Beckerle said.
The new designation, accomplished through a rigorous process of compiling a 1,500-page document and an invasive site visit, officially recognizes the "exceptional" and ongoing laboratory, clinical and population-based research happening at the Huntsman Cancer Institute.
"Only a small percentage of the nation's cancer programs have the excellence necessary to receive comprehensive cancer center status," said Jon Huntsman Sr., the facility's founder and chief benefactor. "What a difference this will make to the cancer patients in our state, in the region and in the world."
Huntsman recently told the Deseret News that the Huntsman Cancer Institute has a leg up on other cancer research facilities because of access to the Utah Population Database, which is housed at the U. and includes centuries of genealogical data made available by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Beckerle said such records are "key to our research engine."
"We are at a very exciting time in the history of cancer research," Beckerle said. "There are more opportunities now, based on a strong foundation of scientific knowledge, to impact early detection, prevention and treatment better than ever before."
The National Cancer Institute's designation, she said, only makes that more promising.
"We are at an inflection point in terms of tremendous opportunity to make a difference," Beckerle said.
To earn the designation of a comprehensive cancer center, designees must show that research being done changes the scope of cancer care for the better and that it can be distributed in a manner that it serves the public.
"We have already had a significant impact on patient outcomes," Beckerle said, adding that the designation provides the "potential to have even greater outcomes." She said that because of the new designation, patients and their families "can be confident they are getting access to the most cutting-edge treatments and the best thinking of national cancer research thought leaders" at Huntsman.
Utah researchers at Huntsman Cancer Institute are considered "world leaders" in the study of cancer genetics — including the discovery of a large number of inherited risk susceptibility genes, as well as mechanisms to identify individuals particularly at risk for specific types of cancer.
While the recent designation is "as high as we can go for now," Beckerle said work is not done.
"We have reached the pinnacle designation that is possible from the National Cancer Institute, but we are tireless in our pursuit of new ways to treat and prevent and detect cancer, and we have a lot of work to do," she said. "Cancer remains the most challenging medical problem of our time. We will not rest until this disease is eliminated from the earth."