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Pioneering MD Anderson Physician-Scientist Dies at 76

Jason Harris
Published: Friday, Jan 04, 2019

Waun Ki Hong, MD

Waun Ki Hong, MD

Waun Ki Hong, MD, a pioneering medical oncologist who was named a 2018 OncLive Giants of Cancer Care® award winner in recognition of his practice-changing research in head and neck cancer, died at his home in California on January 2 at the age of 76. He was semi-retired as head of the Division of Cancer Medicine at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

Dr Hong is perhaps best known for studies that led to larynx-sparing treatments for patients with laryngeal cancer. In the early 1980s, Dr Hong conducted seminal clinical trials showing that cisplatin-based chemotherapy and radiotherapy offered an effective alternative to total laryngectomy for the treatment of cancer of the larynx. He helped launch a Department of Veterans Affairs Laryngeal Cancer Study Group, which in 1991 published findings in the New England Journal of Medicine showing that 66% of patients who received chemotherapy were able to preserve their larynx, and thus the ability to speak.1 Dr Hong also contributed groundbreaking research to the fields of chemoprevention and precision medicine.

“He had legendary scientific integrity,” Dr Hong’s longtime friend and colleague Daniel D. Karp, MD, medical director of the Department of Clinical Translational Research Center at MD Anderson, said in a press release. “His data were impeccable, lending tremendous authority to his clinical trials. His work in cancer research was his passion, his love, and his hobby.”

Dr Hong was born in South Korea, the sixth of 7 children in a middle-class family. He first became interested in medicine as a small child, when a surgeon saved him from a life-threatening buildup of infected fluid in his abdomen. He was further inspired by an older brother’s successful career as a physiologist.

He enrolled in Yonsei University’s College of Medicine after completing his undergraduate studies and then, in 1967, fulfilled his national service obligations by enlisting in the South Korean Air Force. He served for 3 years as a flight surgeon, treating wounded soldiers who were being flown from the Philippines to South Korea.

Dr Hong received what he called a “golden opportunity” to come to the United States and work as a rotating intern at Bronx-Lebanon Hospital in New York in 1970. After serving residencies at Boston VA Medical Center and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Dr Hong returned to Boston VA for the next 9 years.

In 1984, Dr Hong joined The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center as section chief in head and neck medical oncology. He retired in 2014 as head of the Division of Cancer Medicine after leading the unit for 13 years. He remained as a special advisor to a variety of MD Anderson programs that cultivate the careers of young scientists.

“Dr Hong’s dedication to mentoring clinical and postdoctoral fellows, his visionary leadership in cancer research at the national and international level, and his exceptional dedication to the AACR made him a true champion of the field,” Margaret Foti, PhD, MD (hc), CEO of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR), said in a statement. “He was my dear friend, and in his memory and honor, we will work even harder to realize the goal of saving more lives from cancer.”

Later in his career, Dr Hong became known as the father of chemoprevention after conducting a clinical trial for oral cancers that helped establish the principle of preventing cancer by treating precursor growths, an approach subsequently validated in other tumor types.

“I have always been passionate about chemoprevention work because the benefits for success would be so high,” he said in an interview with OncLive in 2018. “For all the progress that we have made, metastatic cancer is still a terrible thing that kills most patients.”

Dr Hong also led the first BATTLE trial testing whether molecular biomarkers could guide treatment in patients with non–small cell lung cancer. The first prospectively conducted biopsy-driven, biomarker-integrated study in lung cancer history, BATTLE confirmed the feasibility of performing substantial genetic analysis on every tumor.

Those results helped galvanize the field of precision medicine in cancer care, leading the National Cancer Institute to open up the MATCH and Lung-MAP trials for squamous cell lung cancer in the United States.

“When we started that trial in 2005, they told us that it would be impossible to biopsy every patient or to analyze the samples in 2 weeks, but we proved it could be done,” Dr Hong said in the interview, referring to BATTLE. “It quickly became a standard for trials, and it’s becoming a standard in the clinic for patients with more and more tumor types, but it seemed like science fiction when we started.”

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