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Children’s Cancer Research Center at HCI Dedicated, Leaders Express Hope for Future

Kiffer Creveling
Michael Taylor cuts the ribbon at the Primary Children’s and Families’ Cancer Research Center Dedication Ceremony at the Huntsman Cancer Institute in Salt Lake City, Utah on Wednesday, June 21, 2017 (Photo by Kiffer Creveling | The Daily Utah Chronicle)

The University of Utah’s Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) dedicated a new arm of their facility Wednesday — the Primary Children’s and Families’ Cancer Research Center.

The first speaker at the dedication, former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman Jr., noted that the new facility expands HCI to one million square feet and gives it one linear mile of research benchtop space. The institute will now support about 2,100 jobs and represents $752 million in annual business activity. It is one of the largest children’s cancer centers in the country.

HCI broke ground on the facility about two and a half years ago. Its construction was funded by Huntsman Cancer Foundation, the institute’s source of private funding. According to Susan Sheehan, President and COO of the foundation, “By the time all principal and interest on this bond are paid, the amount paid by Huntsman Cancer Foundation will be about $173 million.” Major donors to the project include the Huntsman family, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Intermountain Healthcare and the state.

Its name is in honor of the nearby Primary Children’s Hospital, which was established by the LDS church and later given to the people of Utah, to be operated by Intermountain Healthcare.

Second counselor in the First Presidency of the LDS church, Dieter Uchtdorf, dedicated the building.

CEO and Director of Huntsman Cancer Institute, Mary C. Beckerle, PhD, speaks at the Primary Children’s and Families’ Cancer Research Center Dedication Ceremony at the Huntsman Cancer Institute in Salt Lake City, Utah on Wednesday, June 21, 2017
(Photo by Kiffer Creveling | The Daily Utah Chronicle)

The completion of the center doubles the size of HCI’s research program, according to CEO and Director Mary Beckerle. It provides a “world-class technology center” and a new one million dollar genetic sequencing machine which can sequence the entire human genome in “less than one day for less than $100”. She noted the advancement of technology in recent years, pointing out that the first time the human genome was sequenced, it “cost more than $1 billion and took more than one year.”

Giving an example of the work that researchers will do in the new wing, Beckerle spoke about Ewing-sarcoma, a children’s cancer studied in her own laboratory. She recently helped discover a mechanism of regulation for the disease, which proposed a possible treatment. Beckerle said that the treatment will enter clinical trials this year and that researchers at HCI are concentrating on eradicating the disease.

U President David Pershing said that HCI is a crown jewel of the university and hopes that the new addition will bring an “even brighter future.”

State politicians reiterated support for the cancer center, with Gov. Gary Herbert declaring June 19 through 24 Cure Cancer Week and saying that HCI is the result of people who “dare to dream the dream of eradicating cancer.” House Speaker Greg Hughes said that the state will do its part to assist the institute. In the next legislative session, lawmakers will try to ensure that “this vision and passion to cure cancer will exist for years to come in our state,” said Senate President Wayne Niederhauser.

In an exchange between Niederhauser and Jon Huntsman Sr., Niederhauser pointed out that there is still vacant land on the hill near HCI. “Not for long,” replied Huntsman.

Peter Huntsman, son of Jon Huntsman Sr. and CEO of Huntsman Cancer Foundation, also pointed out the vacant land, using it as a metaphor to ask, “Where do we go from here?” Likely referencing recent tensions between the Huntsman family and the U over the institute, he said, “Do our communications go between lawyers, legalities, contracts and commitments, leaks and egos, or do our communications go with hope, with generosity, with vision and building? We stand at a crossroads here. We’ve got the leaders of this community, from a faith-base, political-base, government-base, academia, philanthropy, business. It is up to us. We owe it to our community.”

He continued, “This institution has the commitment of this family, not only of my generation but of generations to come. That’s not always easy… Sometimes it can be arduous and sometimes there can be differences of opinions. But the end result must be able to stand tall. It doesn’t matter who gets the credit…What matters is that we are attacking a scourge of society.”

Jon Huntsman Sr. and Karen Huntsman speak at the Primary Children’s and Families’ Cancer Research Center Dedication Ceremony at the Huntsman Cancer Institute in Salt Lake City, Utah on Wednesday, June 21, 2017
(Photo by Kiffer Creveling | The Daily Utah Chronicle)

Jon Huntsman Sr. also seemed to reference the conflict, saying, “Our job is to eradicate cancer from the face of the earth — eradicate it forever. Not to play around with it, not to play politics with it, not to play egos with it, but to eradicate it and eliminate it at all costs.” He also said he hopes the community will always be united in the fight against cancer.

He spoke of the institute’s beginnings in 1999 — “When we took our first ground full of dirt, I was a little bit discouraged, to be frank with you, because some of the folks at the university said, ‘This isn’t the proper place to have a cancer institute. We aren’t large enough to accommodate what your dreams and ideas are.’” At the time, he turned to the LDS church, who recommended that he continue. They gave him access to the genealogical records, from which the Utah Population Database was born. It is now the largest on earth, with over 17 million names according to Huntsman. The database contains not only names, but also medical information, and has been used in over 200 research projects at HCI.

The institute’s founder also noted that several leaders have told him HCI is among the best cancer centers in the world. He said they got where they are because of strong leaders like Beckerle and the institute’s external advisory board. Members of the board include world renowned scientists like Brian Druker, Edward Benz, and Nobel prize winner Elizabeth Blackburn. Huntsman called them the finest in the country, and said, “they hold our feet to the fire and they present us goals that are almost impossible to reach”. He said HCI has achieved so much because they have “listened to the best”.

All speakers at the dedication expressed hopes that the addition will help HCI find a cure for cancer. As Jon Huntsman Sr. noted, cancer has been studied for over 4,500 years. The disease has been known for so long that some theorize it was named by Hippocrates. Breakthroughs have only been made in the last five or six decades, however. “We have much to learn” moving forward in the work at the institute, he said.

In honor of his 80th birthday, which was the same day as the dedication, Jon Huntsman Sr. also announced a donation of $120 million to the institute.

Beckerle said, “Cancer moves fast. And I am here to tell you, we promise that we will move faster.”

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About the Contributor
Elise Vandersteen Bailey, Investigative Coordinator
Elise is the Investigative Editor at the Daily Utah Chronicle. In her almost four years at the paper, she has won nearly 20 awards from professional journalism organizations. She currently attends graduate school at the U, studying Public Policy and Population Health Sciences, and spends her free time wondering whether it's too nerdy to Tweet whatever "cool" graph she's found most recently.

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