Feb 15, 2018 12:00 PM

HCI Translational Scholars
HCI Translational Scholars

Advancing discoveries made in the lab to medical treatments that can be used in patient care is complex and time-consuming. Commonly called clinical translation, this process can be thought of much like translating something from one language to another.

Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) makes it a high priority to recruit and mentor top translational physicians from around the world. These physicians take research that begins in HCI laboratories and bring it to the clinical setting, working to improve the lives of our patients.

In 2017, HCI honored six of the very best and brightest in our community by designating them Huntsman Translational Scholars. The honor comes with financial support for research to advance discoveries, as well as commitment to promote their career development.

Robert Andtbacka, MD, CM

Robert AndtbackaRobert Andtbacka, MD, CM, is a surgical oncologist and researcher at HCI and an associate professor of surgery at the University of Utah. He did his fellowship at MD Anderson before joining the staff at HCI 12 years ago. His primary area of focus is melanoma and the use of targeted and immunotherapies to fight and kill tumors. He believes the research happening at HCI is unique because it’s focused on the genetics of melanoma. “Ten years ago, patients with metastatic melanoma had very few options and didn’t live very long. Fortunately, that is now 180 degrees different. With some of the newer therapies, the response rate is over 50%, which represents a dramatic shift for our patients. But we still have to remember about half of our patients don’t respond to the therapies.” Andtbacka says he’s honored to be leading HCI’s first group of Translational Scholars. He believes the creation of this distinction reflects HCI’s commitment and recognition of the importance of translation research.

Adam Cohen, MD, MS

Adam CohenAdam Cohen, MD, MS, is a physician-scientist at HCI where his specialties include neuro-oncology, breast oncology, and gynecologic cancers. He’s also an assistant professor of internal medicine at the University of Utah. He came to HCI in 2009 and notes it’s been a very exciting time because of the development of targeted therapies and immunotherapies. He says he’s learned a significant lesson from his patients, “They’ve taught me to value the important things in my life and to let go of the unimportant things.” Cohen says he’s got the best job on earth because working in academic medicine allows him to be involved in research and to treat patients. “There’s a collaborative spirit at HCI. It’s a place where people get along and where the ethos of the place is that cancer is a disease, whether you’re talking about clinical treatment or research. It takes a team and every member of that team is important. I think that is what allows us to give better care to patients.”

Howard Colman, MD, PhD

Howard ColmanHoward Colman, MD, PhD, is the director of medical neuro-oncology at HCI and professor in the department of neurosurgery at the University of Utah. Colman specializes in treating patients with primary and metastatic brain tumors, and his research is focused on developing and testing new therapies for them. “Our multidisciplinary brain tumor group provides excellent expertise for the disease. Brain tumors represent a relatively small percentage of the cancer population, which creates a challenge for patients and physicians outside of a true sub-specialty center like HCI.” Colman is constantly impressed by the outlook of brain tumor patients and appreciates their willingness to participate in clinical trials. “If a patient has one of the more aggressive brain tumors, they understand they’re in a difficult situation. They understand the disease is difficult, and they want realistic information. They also want hope that there is a new treatment that may benefit them, and if it doesn’t benefit them then they hope the information from the trial will benefit other patients.” He’s honored to be an HCI Translational Scholar because the award supports research aimed at bringing scientific discoveries to the care of patients. 

Ignacio Garrido-Laguna, MD, PhD

Ignacio Garrido-LagunaIgnacio Garrido-Laguna, MD, PhD, is an HCI physician-scientist, specializing in gastrointestinal cancers, as well as an associate professor of internal medicine at the University of Utah since 2011. He treats many patients with pancreatic cancer and notes most face a grim diagnosis with a positive attitude, resilience, and a desire to help others with the disease. “We have an urgent need to improve the outcomes for our patients. The population here is very generous. They want to get the best treatment and at the same time contribute to the science and make an impact for folks in the future.” Garrido-Laguna is also enthusiastic about his role as a teacher. “To contribute to training the next generation of physicians is something I enjoy very much. It’s part of our mission, and I learn a lot when I’m doing rounds with our interns, residents, and fellows.” He’s honored to be selected as one of HCI’s first translational scholars. “It represents a great opportunity to exemplify the mission of HCI and I think translational research is the paradigm for the research.”

Deborah Stephens, DO

Deborah StephensDeborah Stephens, DO, is an HCI researcher who has worked in the Division of Hematology and Hematologic Malignancies since 2014. She’s also an assistant professor of internal medicine at the University of Utah. Her interest in blood cancers began as child because her uncle had chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL). CLL is her primary area of research. She explains that sometimes in patients suffering from CLL for a long time the disease changes to a more aggressive type of lymphoma (called a Richter’s transformation). There’s still no good treatment option for that so it is one focus of her research. “We have a great opportunity at HCI because we see patients that may have been told they have no options for treating their disease. They come to us, and we have some great novel agents that might significantly improve their survival or quality of life.” She says one quote about patient care stays with her: “people don’t care what you know until they know how much you care.” She is proud to be one of HCI’s Translational Scholars. “There’s a sense of togetherness here. We’re all working towards the same goal.”

Theresa Werner, MD

Theresa WernerTheresa Werner, MD, is the medical director of the Clinical Trials Office at HCI as well as an associate professor of internal medicine at the University of Utah. She joined the staff at HCI in 2007 and specializes in treating cancers that primarily affect women. "It really is sort of a trifecta of taking care of the patients, teaching the next generation of doctors, and at the same time advancing the science. I learn a lot from each different piece.” Werner says you don’t become a physician if you don’t like taking care of patients, and she’s learned a lot from hers. “They show me the resiliency of the human spirit. It always amazes me how tough these women are.” Werner is honored to be one of the HCI Translation Scholars and appreciates the support from HCI. “They’ve been supportive of my career and growth and development as a leader, as a researcher, and as a physician. It’s truly a community and collaborative. I really feel like we’re all on the same team.”

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