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Minnesota Opinion: On 80th anniversary, let's laud the work of Hormel Institute

Relative anonymity hasn't impeded research and growth in the fight against cancer.

Hormel Institute
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Do you have a can of Spam in your pantry? Did you fry some Hormel Black Label Bacon for breakfast this morning? Is Hormel Chili your go-to topping for hot dogs on game day? (Is a Jennie-O Turkey Store bird on your Thanksgiving table?)

Minnesota Opinion editorial
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We probably could spend another thousand words listing the various Hormel-branded foods that show up on plates across the country — and indeed the world — but we won't bother. Instead, we'll simply point out that every time you purchase a Hormel product, you're making a contribution to the world-class cancer research at the Hormel Institute in Austin. Hormel Foods pays dividends to the Hormel Foundation, which in turn funds research at the institute.

To say that the Institute operates in the shadow of its better-known neighbors would be putting it mildly.

Hormel Foods, which is right across I-90 from the Hormel Institute, is a global juggernaut. It employs nearly 20,000 people worldwide, and during the 12-month period ending April 30, it reported record sales of nearly $12.5 billion.

People who drive through Austin have little doubt what they're seeing on the south side of the interstate, but on the north side? Not so much.

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Then there's the massive presence of a rather famous medical center just 30-some miles away. Mayo Clinic gets (and deserves) the bulk of the headlines about medical research and breakthroughs in Southeast Minnesota, but the fact remains that were the Hormel Institute located in Des Moines or Omaha, its cancer research and outreach efforts would garner much more attention both locally and nationally.

But relative anonymity hasn't impeded research and growth at the Hormel Institute, which in late June celebrated its 80th anniversary.

Founded by Jay C. Hormel, who built a lab in a stable to study food preservation and safety, the Institute is now an independent biomedical research department within the University of Minnesota's Office of the Vice President for Research. It partners with the U of M, Masonic Cancer Center UMN and Mayo Clinic to perform ground-breaking cancer research.

What kind of cancer research?

Again, we could write a lot of words and fail to summarize the work being done at Hormel Institute. It currently has 18 research “sections,” with studies that include cancer vaccines, DNA repair, gene regulation, drug resistance and a host of other topics. With more than 20 Ph.Ds under one roof, utilizing 42 labs and the best equipment money can buy, it's quite possible that no cancer research facility in the world has a greater concentration of intellect and technology in such a small footprint.

And then there's the truly exciting news — the biggest achievements for the Hormel Institute are yet to come.

The Institute has quadrupled in size since 2008, and as Hormel Foods' profits have grown, so too has funding for the Institute, which in 2021 topped $24 million, besting a previous high of nearly $16 million in 2016. Numbers like that will save lives, because cancer research requires talent, persistence and money. The best researchers in the world can achieve little or nothing without the funding that allows them to fail many times on the road to discovery.

But time is always the enemy. Thousands of people get bad news from doctors every day, and when they hear the word “cancer,” the race to find new cures and treatments takes on new, personal urgency.

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Hormel Institute not only participates in that race, but it also looks ahead to future races that will be won by researchers who haven't yet reached high school. On June 28, for example, the Institute hosted elementary students and middle-schoolers who got an up-close look at what they might someday do if they pursue a career in science, technology, engineering and math – a.k.a STEM. These youngsters interacted with 15 interns, most of them juniors or seniors in college, some of whom will likely be part of the next generation of cancer researchers.

In other words, the Hormel Institute pursues breakthrough treatments for cancer while also training and attracting the researchers of tomorrow.

Not bad for a place that almost qualifies as “blink-and-you-missed-it” in Austin, Minnesota.

This Minnesota Opinion editorial is the opinion of the editorial board of the Rochester Post-Bulletin.

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