Apr 26, 2018 12:00 PM

Robert Andtbacka, MD

Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) has established The Society of Huntsman Translational Scholars, an initiative that recognizes excellence in the discipline of translational science. Translational researchers extend basic discoveries made in the laboratory and apply them to solve clinical problems and benefit patients through new diagnostic and therapeutic approaches. Six physician-scientists were recently recognized by leaders at HCI and the University of Utah with a Huntsman Translational Scholar award.

Recognition as a Huntsman Translational Scholar provides financial support to promote cancer-focused studies that accelerate the development of new treatments. The six awardees will also work as a cohesive team to share best practices and mentor other scientists interested in translational cancer research. “The Huntsman Translational Scholars is an initiative designed to recognize and advance the careers of exceptional scientists who are making strides in translational research,” says HCI Director and CEO Mary Beckerle.

Over the next several weeks we will be publishing a series of articles featuring these exceptional physician-scientists.

Robert Andtbacka, MD, is a surgical oncologist and researcher at HCI. He holds the rank of associate professor in the Division of Surgical Oncology, Department of Surgery, at the University of Utah. Andtbacka was recently honored with a Huntsman Translational Scholar award and will also be in charge of leading the activities of the group for the coming year.

Dr. Andtbacka is interested in developing targeted treatments for melanoma patients. His focus is on immunotherapy, a strategy that capitalizes on the patient’s immune system to fight and eradicate tumors. In his studies, Andtbacka uses genetically-modified viruses precisely designed to kill melanoma cancer cells. His enthusiasm is readily apparent as he describes the studies developing in his laboratory: “We are injecting highly specific viruses directly into the tumor site; the viruses stimulate the patient’s immune system, enabling it to fight tumors. We are using immunotherapy approaches in combination with many other therapies.”

Andtbacka, who has worked at HCI for 12 years, remarks that Utah has the highest rate of new melanoma skin cancer cases in the country. One of his primary interests is to investigate how inherited and acquired genetic defects affect melanoma incidence and progression. “Our goal is to understand the biology of melanoma and to elucidate how the immune system affects individual tumors. It is then possible to modify the immune system and maximize its potential to fight tumors,” he says.

Andtbacka is excited about his role in the development of treatment breakthroughs that are prolonging the lives of his patients. “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,” he says. But he also notes, “We still have to remember that about half of our patients don’t respond to the therapies.”

Andtbacka says he’s honored to be recognized as a Huntsman Translational Scholar. He thinks the award reflects HCI’s commitment and recognition of the importance of translational research. “There is still much research to be done, and that’s really where this support for translational research comes in,” he says. He describes HCI as an organization uniquely suited to help teams of cancer researchers develop new treatments and offer diverse therapeutic options. “This is a place that provides hope for patients,” he says.

cancer care cancer research melanoma skin cancer immunotherapy

Cancer touches all of us.

Share Your Story