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Shooting for the Moon: Advancing Cancer Research through Precision Medicine

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During his final State of the Union address in January 2016, President Obama announced a $1 billion initiative to jumpstart cancer research. Inspired by our country's drive to put a man on the moon in the 1960s, he called it the "Moonshot" initiative to accelerate development of new cancer detections and treatments. This is right in line with Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) at the University of Utahan organization that already shoots for the moon with its research in precision medicine.

Precision medicine takes into account individual differences in people's genes, environments, and lifestyles. It gives researchers and health care providers' tools to better understand the complex mechanisms underlying a person's health, disease, or condition, and to better predict which treatments will be most effective. This is transforming the way diseases such as cancer can be treated.

Randall Burt, MD, emeritus director of prevention and outreach at HCI, says he is thrilled about the President's announcement. Burt has worked to discover the genetics of inherited colorectal cancer syndromes for decades. He was a leader of the team that in 1987 discovered a mutation in the gene called FAP that's responsible for one such syndrome.

With precision medicine, doctors look at a patient's family history to discover clues about possible inherited genetic mutations and use that information to guide cancer prevention and treatment efforts. Dr. Burt says, "Genetic testing can determine which individuals are predisposed to get cancer and determine optimal therapies."

Gregg Johnson is one of those individuals. He lost his mother and grandmother to cancer at young ages. Doctors at HCI discovered a genetic mutation within Gregg's family that will cause him to have colon cancer. Since that discovery, Gregg has regular screening through a yearly colonoscopy and attributes early prevention as the key to his health. He says, "I've outlived my mother by almost a decade and a half now, and it's because of what we've come to know and understand about genetics."

Dr. Burt expects that the Moonshot initiative will help further genetic research to find more genes that lead to high risk for cancer. The hope is this research will help prevent cancer before it ever occurs and, says Dr. Burt, "increase the survival rate to 100%."

For more information on precision medicine and the Moonshot initiative, visit

Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) is a National Cancer Institute (NCI)-Designated Comprehensive Cancer Center, which means it meets the highest standards for cancer research and receives support for its scientific endeavors. HCI is located on the campus of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City and is a part of the University of Utah Health Care system. HCI treats patients with all forms of cancer and operates several high-risk clinics that focus on melanoma and breast, colon, and pancreas cancers, among others. HCI also provides academic and clinical training for future physicians and researchers. For more information about HCI, please visit