May 23, 2018 11:00 AM

Deborah Stephens, DO
Deborah Stephens, DO

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.

Deborah Stephens, DO, is the physician leader of hematology clinical trials at HCI and is also an assistant professor in the Division of Hematology and Hematologic Malignancies at the University of Utah. Her research and clinical care focuses on patients with lymphoma and chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL). Stephens joined HCI in 2014 after studying at Ohio State and Cleveland Clinic.

Stephens says she is energized by the sense that everyone at HCI is working for the same goal. “We’re dedicated to finding cures for the incurable types of cancers,” she notes. 

Working in the area of blood cancers is personal for Stephens. Her uncle suffered from CLL and passed away from an aggressive form of the disease called Richter’s transformation. “There’s still no really good treatment option for Richter’s transformation," she says. "It’s one of the primary focuses of my research, because the average survival time of patients with the aggressive form of the disease is six to nine months."

Research was a big reason Stephens chose to work at HCI. Her primary area of research is developing new targeted therapies for patients with lymphoma and CLL. She often sees patients who’ve been told at other hospitals that nothing else can be done. “They come to my clinic, and I can offer some novel treatments that might significantly improve their survival or quality of life. Participating in clinical trials gives patients access to the newest medicines that are not yet available by prescription,” she explains. Stephens is also co-director of CAR T cell therapy at HCI. “I’m very excited to bring CAR T cell therapy to patients in Utah and the surrounding area. With this therapy, we can train a patient’s immune system to help us fight their lymphoma or leukemia,” she reports.

Stephens says she admires the strength and bravery of patients and that learning from them is one of the best parts of her job. “My patients bring in questions about their disease and research they have done, and we have really good discussions about how the research applies to their life,” she says. Most of her patients don’t have a medical background, so Stephens makes drawings to explain what’s happening inside their body. One of her guiding principles comes from a quote she was told long ago: “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

Stephens says she is honored to receive the Society of Huntsman Translational Scholar award and appreciates HCI’s devotion to research. “There’s a lot more work to be done in cancer research, and I’m honored to have the opportunity, support, and validation from the senior leaders at HCI who believe my work is part of our mission.”

cancer care cancer research clinical trials lymphoma leukemia Cancer Center Research Program Experimental Therapeutics

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