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New Cancer Genetics Center

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Sean Tavtigian, PhD

A new research initiative at Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) at the University of Utah (U of U) builds upon Utah’s history of genetic discovery to inform strategies that help affected families reduce their cancer risk. Called the Center for Cancer Genetics at HCI, its initial work includes two statewide projects designed to advance understanding of genetic predisposition of cancer and other disease.

Sean Tavtigian, PhD, a cancer researcher at HCI and professor of oncological sciences at the U of U, has been appointed Director of the Center for Cancer Genetics at HCI. Tavtigian has longstanding leadership in the identification of cancer predisposition genes. These include certain mutations in BRCA1 and BRCA2, known to significantly increase risk of breast, ovarian, and other cancers. Tavtigian also specializes in developing methods for analysis of variants of uncertain significance (VUS). Millions of variations are possible in genes that control health; some that have no impact on health while others can significantly increase a person’s risk for disease. Tavtigian and his colleagues work to uncover which VUS can impact human health, simultaneously advancing methods for others to do the same. Tavtigian said, “Over the years, Utah researchers have been world leaders in advancing discovery of genes that increase risk of cancer. Those advances were possible, in part, due to extraordinary research assets in Utah and participation of Utah families in research.”

The Center for Cancer Genetics will collaborate with numerous HCI resources, including the Family Cancer Assessment Clinic, the Utah Population Database, and several tumor site-specific disease teams. These resources and more will support the Center for Cancer Genetics as it launches its two initial statewide projects. The first project will comprehensively engage families with a high risk of cancer due to genetic changes in a specific set of eight genes (APC, BRCA1, BRCA2, MLH1, MSH2, MSH6, PMS2, and TP53) in research to help other cancer centers towards the same goal, which will add years to the lives of members of these families across the country. The second project seeks to inform understanding of VUS by better utilizing recently developed sequence variant classification techniques. Both projects will study the Utah population and will work to advance understanding of how genetic changes impact health.

Technological advances have reduced costs for clinical genetic testing. Simultaneously, high-quality tests have improved cancer prevention and early detection efforts on a large scale. Cornelia Ulrich, PhD, executive director of the Comprehensive Cancer Center at HCI, states, “The Center for Cancer Genetics is a major investment in broadening our worldwide leadership in cancer genetics. We aim to bring genetic discoveries to the clinic and population through innovation and dedicated service.”

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About Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah

Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah (the U) is the National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center for Utah, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, and Wyoming. With a legacy of innovative cancer research, groundbreaking discoveries, and world-class patient care, we are transforming the way cancer is understood, prevented, diagnosed, treated, and survived. Huntsman Cancer Institute focuses on delivering a cancer-free frontier to all communities in the area we serve. We have more than 300 open clinical trials and 250 research teams studying cancer at any given time. More genes for inherited cancers have been discovered at Huntsman Cancer Institute than at any other cancer center. Our scientists are world-renowned for understanding how cancer begins and using that knowledge to develop innovative approaches to treat each patient’s unique disease. Huntsman Cancer Institute was founded by Jon M. and Karen Huntsman.

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