At a time of deep cuts in federal research funding, the University of Utah's Huntsman Cancer Institute on Friday announced plans to double its research space and devote more resources to studying childhood cancer.
Billionaire industrialist Jon M. Huntsman, the hospital's founder and principal benefactor, unveiled plans for the 220,000-square-foot addition during a gala at the Grand America hotel. The Huntsman family is funding roughly half of the $100 million project.
The rest comes from individual donors and major gifts from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Intermountain Healthcare and the state Legislature, said Huntsman.
The new space, to be named the Primary Children's & Families' Cancer Research Center, will allow the hospital to hire 300 new specialists and double-down on its genetic research into familial cancer, said Huntsman Cancer Institute CEO Mary Beckerle.
The wing will be devoted to research, not treatment, she said. But it will facilitate a closer marriage with the clinical work already being done at Primary Children's Medical Center by oncologists who also work as faculty at the U., she said.
Huntsman Cancer claims to have discovered more mutations for inherited cancer than any other center in the world. It is the site of the Utah cancer registry and Utah Population Database, which allows researchers to link Utah genealogies with medical records.
"We think the strengths we've built in adult cancer research can be applied really effectively to tackle children's cancers," said Beckerle.
Cancer remains an adult disease; childhood cancer is still relatively rare. And though a minority of adult cancers are inherited, new genetic discoveries suggest up to 30 percent of cancers have some genetic component, said Beckerle.
Whenever you discover a new cancer gene "you get insight into cancer in general," she said.
The expansion is still in the design phase but will include a biotechnology center and tumor imaging suite with new technologies that will allow researchers to more quickly determine if tumors are responding to therapies.
"Right now, you might have to wait six months to know whether a therapy is working before you're able to try another," she said. "With these new modalities we might know in a month, or two weeks or less if a patient is responding."
Huntsman said he is also exploring joint ventures with China and other countries in Asia and the Middle East where "we would help them set up cancer hospitals and they would pay us a certain amount for our research so we could continue to expand our operations here."
This latest addition is the fourth expansion since Huntsman and his wife, Karen, founded the hospital in 1995. Huntsman made his fortune in manufacturing chemical products and plastics packaging.
Huntsman has battled cancer four times. His mother and grandmother died of cancer at a young age. His father died of prostate cancer, and his stepmother succumbed to ovarian cancer.
In addition, his brother, Blaine Huntsman, died of pancreatic cancer, and one of Blaine's daughters developed childhood leukemia at the age of 9.
"Leukemia back then had a death rate of 80 percent. Today it's closer to 10 percent," said Huntsman, heralding advances that have lowered the cancer mortality rate even as cancer diagnoses continue to grow.
New research shows the siblings and parents of children who get cancer are at twice the risk of developing the disease themselves, said Huntsman, noting his ultimate dream would be to be able to inoculate children against cancer.