Jul 18, 2018 1:00 PM

Mary Beckerle, PhD, at work in her office.
Mary Beckerle, PhD, at work in her office.

The state of Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) is strong and focused, according to CEO Mary Beckerle, PhD. An annual tradition at HCI, the presentation to faculty, staff, and students is a chance for the Dr. Beckerle to reflect on accomplishments of the prior year and outline priorities for the future. In her 2018 address, Beckerle emphasized five areas of HCI’s unwavering commitments: Discovery, Translation, Compassionate Care, Training, and Community.

Noting the loss of HCI’s founder and benefactor, Jon M. Huntsman, Sr. earlier this year, Beckerle said his mission of eradicating cancer remains a fundamental goal. She affirmed Huntsman’s vision for HCI as, “A ‘cancer campus’ with cutting-edge cancer research, compassionate and state-of-the-art clinical care, and a learning center to educate patients and the public about cancer risk, prevention, and care.”

Building on HCI’s reputation as ‘The Cancer Center of the West’ is driven, Beckerle said, by the need to extend our impact beyond Utah and enhance our position as the destination center for cancer care in the Mountain West. She pointed out there were 125,000 patient visits to HCI last year which translates into roughly 385 patients seen every day. That’s a five percent annual increase of new cancer patients and, to the credit HCI’s care teams, in-patient satisfaction is consistently in the top 1 percentile nationwide.

Those patients come primarily from a catchment area that is 17 percent of the contiguous landmass in the United States and includes eight American Indian Tribes or Nations and the extensive underserved rural and frontier populations of five states. “They travel to HCI searching for hope, knowing our care teams and researchers offer them the best chance of survival,” she said. She also noted HCI is expanding the reach of our care, with five regional affiliates, satellite clinics in northern Utah, and a new clinic in Sugar House set to open by the middle of next year.

HCI’s continued commitment to providing cutting-edge technology in cancer care has never been stronger, according to Beckerle. In the last year HCI began offering hyperthermic intraperitoneal chemoperfusion (HIPEC). HIPEC delivers heated chemotherapy drugs directly into the abdomen. “It provides new hope for patients with advanced cancers and HCI is the only place in the Mountain West offering this treatment,” said Beckerle.

HCI has also added photopheresis for patients diagnosed with graft-versus-host disease (GVHD). Beckerle explained this treatment uses light to activate immune cells. The treatment can also be used to treat T-cell lymphoma and solid organ transplant rejection.

In May 2018, HCI became one of a few cancer centers in the nation, certified by the FDA, to offer CAR T cell therapy to patients with certain types of aggressive blood cancers. “Chimeric Antigen Receptor (CAR) T cell therapy is immunotherapy that can be a game-changer for patients who have already gone through two other types of treatments without success,” said Beckerle. HCI is the first place in the Mountain West to provide CAR T cell therapy for adults.

May 2018 was also the month HCI opened the Center for HOPE, which stands for Health Outcomes and Population Equity. Beckerle said this new research and clinical space is dedicated to preventing cancer and improving the health in the underserved populations of the Mountain West. David Wetter, PhD, Director of The Center for HOPE, received a $9.7 million grant to fund a clinical trial researching new and effective approaches to reduce tobacco use.

HCI is also preparing to offer Intensity Modulated Proton Therapy (IMPT). The announcement of this high-tech addition to HCI’s menu of radiation care was made late last year. IMPT or proton beam therapy, is a type of radiation therapy that delivers precise, pencil-thin proton beams to a tumor. Beckerle explained this intense beam hits the tumor with the maximum dose of radiation and minimizes the damage to the surrounding healthy tissue. There are no other proton beam therapy facilities in the Mountain West. Beckerle said the new facility should be open by the fall of 2020.

Research is the driving force behind HCI’s mission. Beckerle told the staff the number of patients screened or enrolled on clinical trials has quadrupled since 2004 and there are more than 200 clinical trials open at any given time at HCI. In support of that mission, HCI leadership created a new infrastructure to support mentorship of physician-scientists who are dedicated to translating new discoveries into patient applications. Translational researchers apply basic discoveries made in the laboratory to solve clinical problems and benefit patients through diagnostic and therapeutic approaches. One piece of this infrastructure is a new society of translational scholars. Six physician-scientists were recognized with a Huntsman Translational Scholar award, which includes an annual stipend of $50,000 a year for three years. The 2018 inductees are Robert Andtbacka, MD, CM; Howard Colman, MD, PhD; Adam Cohen, MD; Ignacio Garrido-Laguna, MD, PhD; Deborah Stephens, DO; and Theresa Werner, MD.

Beckerle also recognized more than a dozen HCI researchers who had published their studies in high-impact journals. She also highlighted HCI’s trainees and HCI’s commitment to training the next generation of cancer leaders as well as the recruitment of top talent joining HCI from Stanford, Fred Hutchinson, MD Anderson, and the National Cancer Institute (NCI).

What’s next? Beckerle said there are significant services to the community on the horizon. Later this year HCI will begin offering Huntsman at Home. “It will be HCI-level care taken to patients in their homes,” Beckerle explained. She described it as an innovative model of comprehensive, patient-focused, cancer care delivery. The objectives are to be a first-class patient and family-centered program providing clinical care at home. It will also bring palliative care to the home setting. “The hope is this service will improve our patients’ outcomes and decrease visits to emergency rooms,” Beckerle said.

HCI is gearing up for another project that will impact virtually everyone on staff, according to Beckerle, the renewal of the Cancer Center Support Grant (CCSG). This grant reflects on HCI’s elite status as an NCI designated Comprehensive Cancer Center. The CCSG review committee will evaluate six essential characteristics: facilities; organizational capabilities; transdisciplinary collaboration and coordination; cancer focus; institutional commitment; and the cancer center director. The renewal deadline is May 23, 2019.

Beckerle concluded her presentation by reminding the audience of HCI’s core principles: the patient first, united effort, and excellence in all we do. Then, with a slight twist on a famous line from Jon Huntsman Sr. she said, “Cancer moves fast. Thank you for all you continue to do in order to move faster.”

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