A Utah Scientist Powering the 'Cancer Moonshot'

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Because cancer research funding isn’t guaranteed to stay the same. 

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Article by Libby Coleman.

Video by Nat Roe.

It was one of those rare moments of bipartisanship: Then-Vice President Joe Biden visited the red state of Utah about a year ago and met with the enormously effective Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch and former Republican Gov. Jon M. Huntsman Jr. to discuss the C-word. Huntsman noted that “politics had been put aside” in support of Biden’s initiative to cure cancer — dubbed the “cancer moonshot.” But while those big-name politicos garnered the bulk of the press coverage, the person Biden may have paid the most attention to at that visit came from outside the political sphere: Mary Beckerle, the 62-year-old who leads the Huntsman Cancer Institute.

On a snowy day in the Beehive State, a bubbly and vivacious Beckerle meets with OZY inside her lab, where beakers line the shelf and a photo of her and Biden is posted in the corner. The CEO and director of the HCI — which includes a cancer hospital and research facilities with more than 1,800 employees — has ditched her lab coat for a bright red jacket. The outfit change deceives, though. Beckerle is deadly serious as she discusses her studies of Ewing’s sarcoma, a pediatric bone cancer; in a typical year, she publishes multiple pieces of research. Her body of work includes a breakthrough discovery on how Ewing’s sarcoma cancer cells spread. “Dr. Beckerle is the envy of every cancer center in the world, and we are very fortunate to have her at the helm of Huntsman Cancer Institute,” Jon Huntsman Sr. told OZY in a statement.

Beckerle helped set Biden’s agenda to try and cure cancer, in part by serving on a 28-person panel that advised him on the direction of his program. Just before Barack Obama’s administration ended, the 21st Century Cures Act passed — with some political grit and elbowing by Biden that ultimately led to a cancer research provision for $1.8 billion. “There was major momentum and we want to make sure there’s support in the White House,” says Jon Retzlaff, a managing director of Science Policy at the American Association for Cancer Research.

That was last year, though; the future of cancer research is more uncertain today. Retzlaff is looking ahead to the impending budget proposal from President Donald Trump’s administration, due in April, to see how the new president intends to support funding for cancer research after his promises to other sectors, like infrastructure and border security. Biden recently said he “prays” that Trump will continue to support the cancer moonshot, while Beckerle’s “hopeful” that research in this area (much funding for the HCI comes through the National Cancer Institute and the National Institutes of Health, both dependent on federal dollars) will remain a bipartisan issue — the war on cancer, after all, took off under Richard Nixon. Even with so much up in the air, Beckerle plans to have her research make its way into treatment before she retires.

No buildings existed yet, but the HCI wanted Beckerle to serve as one of its first members — a desire helped by millions of dollars in pledged funding.

Beckerle grew up as one of three sisters in River Edge, New Jersey, where her childhood was cut short by the death of her father when he was only 36. She was 12. Her mother supported the girls, taking night shifts as a nurse. Beckerle, who swam in the mornings and dipped into biology class, eventually graduated from college with a mix of courses in philosophy, psychology and biology before working in a lab. She debated about pursuing a career in medicine or in science, and settled on science after a stint at UT Southwestern, where she learned the art of doing science and its similarity to cooking. A couple degrees later, during which time she published in prominent journals, she interviewed at, then chose, the University of Utah. Mario Capecchi — now a Nobel Prize winner — recruited her, she says.

A decade later, in the 1990s, Beckerle says she was recruited for a chair position at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. But when the founder of HCI heard she was interested in leaving Utah, he rang her up. No buildings existed yet, but the HCI wanted Beckerle to serve as one of its first members — a desire helped by millions of dollars in pledged funding. In the end, Beckerle chose to stay, and to this day, no other NCI-designated cancer centers exist in Utah or in the bordering states of Nevada, Idaho or Wyoming.

Still, a cure to cancer may remain elusive. Billions of dollars have already gone into researching it each year; around 1.7 million people were diagnosed with cancer last year, and more than 500,000 died from it — ranking the disease among the top two causes of death in the U.S. The problem is also understood to be more complex these days, given that cancer is recognized to be of various types.

Yet Beckerle remains bullish on a possible solution. “Because [cancer] touches everyone, it’s one of the areas we have had really, really effective bipartisan collaboration,” she says. “No matter if you’re a Democrat, a Republican, a socialist — everyone is touched by cancer.”

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