Podcast: A Conversation With Mary Beckerle, CEO of Huntsman Cancer Institute

Pete CodellaBusiness Elevated Podcast


Business Elevated Podcast (Episode 48)

This podcast series features business and government leaders discussing what it’s like to live and work in the great state of Utah. This episode includes a conversation between Ryan Starks, managing director of business services at GOED, and Mary Beckerle, CEO of the Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah

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Welcome to the Business Elevated Podcast, where we discuss what it’s like to live and work in the great state of Utah. Did you know Utah is frequently ranked the best state for business by Forbes? This podcast is a production of the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Development. Thanks for joining the conversation.


Mary Beckerle
Ryan Starks

Ryan Starks: (0:22) Good afternoon, and welcome to the Business Elevated podcast. I’m Ryan Starks, managing director of business services at GOED. Today, my guest today is Dr. Mary Beckerle, who holds several positions and wears several hats, including the CEO of the Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah. Dr. Beckerle, welcome. We’re so glad that you’re here with us today.

Mary Beckerle: (0:44) Thanks so much, Ryan. It’s my pleasure to be with you.

Ryan Starks: (0:47) A few months ago, you and I were on a round table discussion with Gov. Herbert, and you gave a great update on some of the good work that the Huntsman Cancer Institute is doing. We thought we’d circle around with you today and follow up to hear about the good things that you’re doing.

But before we jump into that, we wanted to get to know you a little bit. Dr. Beckerle, what is your background, and where are you from?

Mary Beckerle: (1:13) I’m actually not a Utah native. But I sort of feel like I am now because I’ve been here for more than 30 years, but I grew up in New Jersey, and I moved to Utah in 1986 to take a position at the University of Utah in the biology department as an assistant professor of biology. I am a cell biologist, focusing on cancer cell biology.

I started at the university, teaching large undergraduate classes and doing research. As my work got more and more cancer-focused, I ultimately moved up to the Huntsman Cancer Institute when it was established in 1999.

Ryan Starks: (1:56) So, you’ve been there since 1999, and great things are happening. What is the mission of the Huntsman Cancer Institute?

Mary Beckerle: (2:03) A lot of people don’t realize this, but Huntsman Cancer Institute is the official comprehensive cancer center of the state of Utah, which is legislatively designated. We are both a cancer specialty hospital, the only cancer specialty hospital in Utah and five mountain West states, but we also have an integrated world-class cancer science program designed to innovate through cancer science and discovery to improve cancer prevention and treatment.

There have been a lot of ways in which the Huntsman Cancer Institute has contributed to improving cancer outcomes. We’ve received a number of awards. We are in the top 50 cancer hospitals in U.S. News and World Report out of more than 4,500 hospitals in the United States. We’re in the top 1% in patient satisfaction of cancer hospitals in the United States for being designated as a comprehensive cancer center by the National Cancer Institute. About 20 people came out to visit us from the National Cancer Institute. This was right before COVID, and we were renewed for seven years and received the highest rating possible by the National Cancer Institute, which is exceptional. We’re very proud of that now. 

To get back to your question, I would say our mission is broad and incorporates clinical care research education and improving community health. Our vision is to deliver a cancer-free frontier. Everything that we do is dedicated toward that vision.

Ryan Starks: (4:03) What a wonderful asset and really a blessing to the state of Utah. I’m guessing you’re probably not on an island. You probably collaborate with other institutions of higher education. Is that right?

Mary Beckerle: (4:14) That’s absolutely right. One of the things that I think is incredibly important in cancer is the appreciation that it’s a very tough challenge. People with lots of different perspectives, disciplinary expertise, technological expertise, et cetera, can come together and synergize to add value and have the greatest impact.

Even at the University of Utah, we have incredibly broad collaborations. More than 40 different academic departments are actively engaged in cancer research at Huntsman Cancer Institute. And that spans all across the entire campus from the health sciences campus with nursing and pharmacy, school of medicine, all the way to the main campus was social and behavioral sciences, computer science and even law. We are one of the united efforts at the University of Utah. I’m really proud of that. And that really enhanced the impact of our science, bringing people together from these diverse disciplines. Then, of course, we collaborate broadly across the United States and the world. I think more than half of our publications are collaborative with other institutions.

Ryan Starks: (5:34) Wow. Well, I know the core mission is really to bless and serve those affected by cancer and that you do that through research and collaboration. Let’s talk about the economic aspects though of the cancer institute. How many people do you employ there?

Mary Beckerle: (5:51) We have more than 2,000 full-time employees at Huntsman Cancer Institute. We’re just embarking on an expansion of our clinical programs. With the expansion of our cancer hospital, through the Catherine F. Kirk Center for Comprehensive Cancer Care and Women’s Cancers, which will add another 50 cancer beds and some exciting new programs in women’s cancer.

Ryan Starks: (6:19) Congratulations. When you tally that up, more than 2,000 people work there. These are good, important jobs to the state’s economy.

Mary Beckerle: (6:27) Absolutely. They are very high paying jobs. We bring in more than $90 million directly in research, grants and contracts from federal agencies. That also creates jobs and enhances the economy for all of the supportive services that research needs.

Ryan Starks: (6:52) That is so important to our economy. Kudos to you and your team for doing great things. Let’s shift and talk a little bit about the obvious question on all of our minds and that’s the COVID-19. How would you describe the Huntsman Cancer Institute response during this global pandemic?

Mary Beckerle: (7:14) The Huntsman Cancer Institute is part of the University of Utah. We have been fully coordinating with University Health and our response to COVID-19, but we also have some very unique circumstances. As you may know, many cancer patients because of their treatment or because of certain aspects of their disease, are immunocompromised. And so, the patients are much more susceptible to illnesses such as coronavirus. We have been from the very beginning, back in February and March, extremely focused on the safety of our patients, our staff, and our clinical workers to protect them as much as possible. 

The good news is that healthcare workers are really good at preventing infection. We have been extremely fortunate in being able to really protect our patients, our faculty and staff. Of course, we’ve been continuing to serve our cancer patients, even as the University Health System has been really significantly focused on COVID-19 patient needs as well, which added a dimension to our healthcare programs. We’ve been able to maintain our services for our cancer patients and even through very careful physical distancing guidelines, masking, and temperature taking when you enter any of our buildings. We’ve been able to also maintain a lot of our life-saving research programs.

People are on shift work, and they’re spreading out and taking turns using the equipment. It’s really important that we’ve been able to continue our cancer research and innovation through this time.

Ryan Starks: (9:12) Well, that’s great to hear that you’re continuing forward. I know a lot of institutions and businesses really have to adapt more than ever. And in some cases, adapting really created new efficiencies and innovations. How would you describe the morale of your 2,000 employees? To work in a cancer institute I would imagine that you have to have a very big heart and you have to be a very caring person. How would you describe the morale during this pandemic?

Mary Beckerle: (9:43) I think we are incredibly blessed to have a remarkably talented, dedicated, passionate and compassionate group of people at Huntsman Cancer Institute. One of the things that characterizes the Huntsman Cancer Institute is that people are really committed to our mission and our vision of delivering a cancer-free frontier. They espouse a collection of core principles that I sort of think of as our secret sauce. It includes the patient and community first in a united effort and excellence in all we do. I think people really live and breathe those principles every day.

And when you are coming to work every day to serve a purpose greater than yourself, it’s incredibly motivating. We see the impact we have on our patients and our community. We see the impact of our cancer care and cancer outcomes in our local environment through the impact of our science and it’s very satisfying and compelling.

Ryan Starks: (10:57) That’s wonderful. Within the broader sense scope of the University’s health care system, what advancements do you see happening with COVID-19? And do you think that we’re close to getting to that point where we get a vaccine in place?

Mary Beckerle: (11:11) Let’s see, I’m taking it from the top. One of the things I think has been really interesting about COVID-19 is what it has taught us. There are clearly some challenges which I’ll mention, but I think there have also been some very important learnings. People always say, don’t waste a crisis. And I would say we have not wasted this crisis. In the scientific community at Huntsman Cancer Institute and the University of Utah, even more broadly in the scientific community, we’ve learned how to mobilize our resources very quickly.

To bring people together to move to tackle some of the challenges that have come with COVID-19. We want to continue to serve our patients and our community, even as it’s very difficult to bring people into a hospital and a clinic during a pandemic, especially for people who have health challenges. We’ve learned to utilize telehealth much more effectively than we have in the past. It’s a very exciting way for us to bring the Huntsman Cancer Institute care to people where they live, which I think we really want to achieve in an ongoing way, in the post COVID world.

There are some challenges. And I would say one of them has been that people are reluctant to come in for their clinical care needs, and some of those clinical care needs include cancer screening. We know that cancer screening saves lives and helps detect cancers early when they can be best treated. And it’s been estimated that there’s been a 75% decline in mammography in the United States due to the COVID-19 pandemic. And though what that means is people are deferring their regular screening, and it’s not just for breast cancer, but also for colon-rectal cancer, lung cancer and several other types of cancer.

Now we’re all really worrying that we’re going to start seeing a second pandemic in the cancer space that is going to come from people not getting their screenings and having cancers detected much more advanced stages than they would have otherwise been.

Ryan Starks: (13:45) One of those unintended consequences.

Mary Beckerle: (13:47) Yes. You also asked about what the University of Utah is doing. I think this is one of the things that makes me incredibly proud is we have an incredibly talented group of scientists, administrators, healthcare providers at the University of Utah. The university has really mobilized, particularly under the leadership of Andy Weyrich, who is our vice president for research at the University of Utah. They invested $1.3 million to support a variety of collaborative COVID-19 projects across the university. Over 50 projects were supported and already, that has resulted in more than $19 million of COVID-19 specific grants to the University of Utah in a huge range of different areas, including things like trying to understand how COVID-19 effect affects blood clotting. You might’ve heard that a lot of people have blood clotting issues with COVID-19, and we have a team of people trying to understand what causes that.

We also have a group of people looking at wastewater, trying to determine if you can monitor COVID-19 in communities by monitoring wastewater. So a lot of different kinds of things. And people are coming together across disciplines.

Ryan Starks: (15:21) Well, we like to say that this response will require all hands on deck, and we certainly appreciate all the good work that you and your team and your counterparts at the University of Utah are doing. Just to send us home with this last question. I’d love to get your thoughts on what other medical breakthroughs you see at the university and what the future of healthcare looks like?

Mary Beckerle: (15:46) I’m incredibly excited about what’s happening at the University of Utah and at Huntsman Cancer Institute. We are at the University of Utah, the world leaders, and understanding inherited susceptibility to disease. This is true across many different disease areas, including cardiovascular disease, neurological disease, and cancer.

You may know that the genes responsible for inherited forms of breast cancer, colon cancer, ovarian cancer, melanoma have all been discovered at the Huntsman Cancer Institute and the University of Utah. We have the incredible asset of the Utah population database which brings together genealogical records with health records to identify cancers or diseases that run in families and then understand the underlying genetic change responsible for those disease susceptibilities. And that has been huge in terms of identifying families that are at risk and making sure that they’re getting health guidance to minimize their risk.

And it’s also really helped us to define some critical pathways that cause these different diseases. And that, of course, is essential information for allowing us to develop novel targeted therapies for those diseases.

Ryan Starks: (17:11) Wow. Well, I feel like my mind is blown. Unless you have cancer, or you’ve been there, maybe we as a state, don’t appreciate what an asset your organization really is. Thank you.

Mary Beckerle: (17:25) Thanks so much, Ryan.


Thanks for listening to the Business Elevated podcast, a production of the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Development. Listen to other episodes where you get your podcasts or at business.utah.gov.