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In the history of cancer, the University of Utah wants to be remembered as an unrelenting adversary.
The college's medical school has finally snared a visit from Siddhartha Mukherjee, known as cancer's biographer. Its researchers hope Mukherjee will add perspective to and even amplify their ambition to cure the disease.
The author who wrote "The Emperor of All Maladies" won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction in 2011. He is set to speak at the school and its Huntsman Cancer Institute on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Mukherjee agrees with the U. in the book that the key to fighting the disease is to get specific. The conviction has strengthened at the Salt Lake City-based health care system as it anglies to be at the forefront of so-called precision medicine. But in order to focus on the minutiae and accurately treat individual patients on a broad scale, researchers must have access to a trove of big data.
"The U. of U. is a real leader in that area," said Huntsman Cancer Institute CEO Mary Beckerle. "I think we'll have a lot to share and a lot of ideas to exchange while he's here."
The growing field involves considering patients' genetic makeup, lifestyle and even their neighborhoods to find and ultimately patent treatments.
It's the subject of a book that Mukherjee is researching. But it's not clear whether this doubles as a study trip for the Harvard University doctor. He declined, through university representatives, to do any interviews.
The White House also is backing the push for more tailored treatments. President Barack Obama in February announced his administration was taking the first steps to create a hulking database with the National Institutes of Health (NIH). More than 1 million volunteers are expected to participate, and hospital systems across the country are hoping for NIH approval to contribute to and access the data.
The $215 million federal push is an especially big lure for researchers as other federal funding has flatlined.
This year's grants have already been awarded to a research team at Vanderbilt, among others. But Beckerle's team appears situated to secure a future spot on the project.
In February, Vice President Joe Biden joined Beckerle and others for a discussion at the Huntsman Cancer Institute, where he urged them to expand other universities' access to a data set created in partnership with the genealogy division of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Utah Population Database, available to physicians in other states through an online system, ties family medical histories to more than 8 million health records.
"I'm looking forward to hearing [Mukherjee's] perspective on where he sees the field of cancer [research] going," Beckerle said, "and where he sees the greater opportunities."
But her school acknowledges that, despite progress tracing gene mutations, there will be hangups.
Privacy is a central concern. Last year, Congress moved to require that people give consent before their medical information can be used.
In December, the U.'s S.J. Quinney College of Law teamed up with the school's biomedical science faculty to talk about potential ethical and legal snares.
Panelists debated how courts and policymakers could prevent racial, ethnic and gender discrimination in cases where treatments respond differently to different genetic makeups. These broader philosophical questions are inevitable as technology and medicine evolve, said Bob Goldberg, director of Tanner Humanities Center.
"It's incredibly important," Goldberg said, to consider history, philosophy and even art in connection with the research,
Mukherjee embraces the perspective. "The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer" blended personal stories from his patients with a broad history of how a cure has evaded doctors since ancient times.
On Tuesday, Mukherjee will give a sold-out lecture on those topics. On Wednesday, he'll join cancer researchers for a 10:30 a.m. panel titled "Tackling Cancer" in the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles theater on the sixth floor of the Huntsman Cancer Institute. That's after having breakfast with students and University of Utah Health Care CEO Vivian Lee.
Lee's medical school has tried to lure Mukherjee in the past. It secured this week's visit with help from the Tanner Humanities Center. A private Tanner trust is putting up about $60,000 for Mukherjee to visit and write an article on cancer for the Tanner Lecture on Human Values.
The annual speaking series takes place at different universities each year, including Harvard University, the University of Michigan and Stanford University.