Stephen Lessnick, MD, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Pediatrics, knew from an early age that he wanted to be a doctor and later expanded his vision to include basic research. "My thesis mentor is a physician-scientist who taught me what it means to look at a science problem and recognize the impact on the care of patients," Lessnick says. "He also taught me what it means to take care of patients while keeping the underlying scientific details of their disease in mind."

Barbara Graves, PhD, professor and chair of the Department of Oncological Sciences, says, "In my 40 years of doing science, I have been driven by the excitement and adventure of delving into the unknown to solve the puzzle of how the biological world works. It is incredibly rewarding to know that one is contributing to a body of knowledge that can solve problems in human health."

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Stephen Lessnick, MD, PhD, and Barbara Graves, PhD

Lessnick and Graves are co-leaders of the Nuclear Control of Cell Growth and Differentiation (NC) Program at Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI). Each of HCI’s five research programs, part of the Cancer Center Support Grant structure, includes scientists and physicians from numerous disciplines and specialties. More than 130 researchers from HCI and the broader University of Utah community conduct cancer-focused research.

Whatever the specific goals of each program, the overarching intent is to create an organic type of research structure at HCI, something like a group of healthy cells: specialized units that are transparent and permeable, open for communication and cooperation, creating a whole that has a broader purpose than the individual parts.

Douglas Grossman, MD, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Dermatology, co-leads the Cell Response and Regulation (CRR) Program with Katharine Ullman, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Oncological Sciences. “Katie and I make a good team because we complement each other. I have a medical perspective; she’s a basic scientist. That’s part of the strategy for all the Cancer Center research programs,” Grossman says. Ullman adds, “Our vision for the CRR Program is to create an interconnected community that brings scientists with different perspectives together. We strive to provide opportunities to benefit from each other’s research and expertise and combine forces to solve important questions about cancer.”

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Douglas Grossman, MD, PhD, and Katharine Ullman, PhD

The NC and CRR Programs focus on laboratory research. HCI’s three other research programs—Imaging, Diagnostics and Therapeutics (IDT); Cancer Control and Population Sciences (CCPS); and Gastrointestinal Cancers (GIC)—also work directly with cancer patients and the public.

The newest program, IDT builds on HCI’s strengths in genetics, pharmaceutics, and imaging. “New imaging technologies and techniques are critical in our fight against cancer,” says John M. Hoffman, MD, co-leader of the IDT Program and director of HCI’s Molecular Imaging Program. Research efforts in the IDT Program aim to develop imaging that will assess biologic changes in cancer cells noninvasively and accurately. This will allow doctors to provide the most appropriate therapy based on biology. “Eventually imaging will become a routine procedure to improve care and treatment of patients with cancer,” Hoffman says.

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Wallace Akerley, MD, with a patient

Wallace Akerley, MD, Senior Director of Community Oncology Research, co-leads the IDT Program. The goal is to treat patients with only the drugs they will benefit from. This means developing methods of matching patients with treatments individually, measuring progress, and evaluating the ways in which drugs work in each patient and on various types of cancer “with precision that rivals the laboratory,” Akerley says.

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Anita Kinney, PhD, RN

“I wanted to make a difference in the prevention area and generate new knowledge aimed at prevention and survivorship,” says Anita Kinney, PhD, RN, who leads the CCPS Program. She began her career as a staff nurse caring for cancer patients and witnessed their experiences firsthand. CCPS does the research to provide evidence of the best ways to reduce cancer incidence, increase cancer survival, and improve quality of life for cancer patients and their families. “Basic science discoveries achieve their highest value for prevention when they’re translated into public health and clinical interventions,” says Kinney.

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Randall Burt, MD

Randall Burt, MD, co-leader of the GIC Program, also talks about making a difference. “My reason for becoming a physician was that it seemed a very honorable thing to do involving both science and the ability to make a difference for individuals and perhaps society,” he says. “I know this sounds like an answer you’d put on a medical school application, but those really were the reasons.” The GIC Program’s overall objective is to identify new ways to prevent and treat gastrointestinal cancers by understanding how and why tumors develop. The Colon Cancer Program Project Grant from the National Cancer Institute is a major source of GIC Program funding. “The grant serves as a focal point for integrating biological discoveries with clinical applications,” says David Jones, PhD, the Program’s other co-leader. “It is key to bringing scientists and clinicians together with the GIC Program in a concerted way.”

“Our five research programs have always stressed collaboration among researchers within programs and across programs,” says Graves, who also serves as HCI’s Senior Director of Basic Science. “This opens a world of opportunity for bringing basic and clinical science together to solve the problems of cancer and help patients.”