top of page

Issue 12 Dr. Waun Ki Hong, Division Head of Cancer Medicine


Dr. Hong, you are a world-renowned successful medical oncologist. What was the reason for attending medical school? What motivated you to become a doctor?

Entering medical school was very competitive even in the old days. I was admitted to Yonsei School of Medicine in Seoul, South Korea in 1960. My oldest brother, Dr. Suk Ki Hong, was one of the best Scientist in Korea. He is a brilliant scientist and he has been my role model throughout my life. He was the Chairman of Physiology Department in Yonsei Medical School and later on he became the Chairman of Physiology Department in the University of Hawaii before he moved to SUNY Buffalo. I was immensely inspired by him to enter medical school but at that time, I didn’t know much about oncology. When I was receiving medical residency training in Boston VA Medical Center, I saw so many patients who were suffering from incurable cancer and it inspired me to pursue medical oncology training in Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in 1973.

"I saw so many patients who were suffering from incurable cancer and it inspired me to pursue medical oncology training."

As a national and international leader in medical oncology, you may have gone through various obstacles; can you share some of the most difficult moments during your career?

I immigrated to US in 1970 and received medical training in New York City and Boston. I have been very fortunate to work with many wonderful people in my academic career, who helped me in great deal. I must admit that it was tremendously challenging to overcome cultural and language barriers in my early days in the US, but I always interpreted it as an opportunity to tackle. Not only did I work very hard, but I also tried my best to work with disciplines and accountability.

You’ve served as the past president of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) and you have been honored with AACR’s 10th annual Margaret Foti Award for Leadership and Extraordinary Achievements. You have been recognized for bringing unprecedented advances in translational and clinical cancer researches throughout your career. Can you share with our readers some of the major achievements and outcomes you have accomplished during your professional life?

In my humble opinion, whatever contributions I have made is basically tip of an iceberg. Nevertheless, I have been very fortunate to make very small contributions in my professional career that has been translated to the cancer patients. If I can highlight four areas of my contributions, they are as follows:

1) Laryngeal preservation approach by using induction chemotherapy and radiotherapy without sacrificing human voice box in patients with advanced laryngeal l cancer. I was very fortunate to be forefront in this field of research and this successful story served as a foundation of organ preservation approach in many other cancers such as breast cancer, anal cancer and bladder cancer as well.

2) Establishing principles of chemoprevention research that led to development of cancer interception strategy that now has a tremendous potential to prevent cancer before the cancer develops fully.

3) Our pioneering research of precision medicine in Lung cancer through so called BATTLE (Biomarkerintegrated Approaches of Targeted Therapy for Lung Cancer Elimination) trial in MDACC that opened up a field of precision medicine trials like MATCH, MPACT trials nationwide.

4) Last but not least, I was fortunate enough to have an opportunity to train hundreds of medical oncologists and scientists worldwide to be the next generation of cancer researchers.

You’ve been appointed as the division head and professor at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, an American Cancer Society professor, and a Samsung Distinguished University Chair in Cancer Medicine.  What are your responsibilities and principles in leading one of the most comprehensive academic and clinical departments?

I had great honor and privilege to serve as Head of Division of Cancer Medicine which is the largest division in MD Anderson Cancer Center. MD Anderson Cancer Center has been ranked as Number One Cancer Center in USA by the US News & World Report for 10 out of last 11 years. The job as the Head of Cancer Medicine was extremely challenging and also exciting at the same time. Overseeing 16 academic departments and the largest Fellowship Program in the country was really unprecedented opportunity. My main job was to provide impeccable care for nearly 10,000 new cancer patients annually and also overseeing research activities of 350 faculties and managing over 100 Million Research Grants.

My principles for managing such huge academic program were basically displaying integrity, accountability, respect transparency, passion, and hardworking ethics. I tried my best to be a role model for all faculty and trainees as well as all employees. Fortunately, I was able to carry out my job with honor and integrity over 14 years, which is the longest tenure as the Head of Cancer Medicine in MDACC. Perhaps this is the single most proud achievement I have ever made in my professional career, as a man who immigrated to this country in 1970 and not even being allowed to dream big.

Dr. Hong, you have been honored with American Society of Clinical Oncology’s 2016 Special Recognition Award for your groundbreaking research in treatment modalities. What are some of the current trends in cancer research? What do you forecast the major changes would be in the areas of cancer research and treatments in next five years?

Dr. Waun Ki Hong providing a congratulatory remark on opening ceremony of The 6th Sevrance-MD Anderson Cancer Center Joint Symposium

I have been a member of American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) since 1975 and served in many important committees in ASCO including the Chair of Cancer Prevention and also I was elected to serve as the Board of Director. Because of my contributions to ASCO and also many achievements as Head of Cancer Medicine, especially training hundreds of postgraduate doctors and clinical fellows, I was very grateful to receive ASCO Special Recognition Award in 2016 at the annual meeting in Chicago.

I believe that this is an incredibly exciting time of cancer care and cancer research because there is tremendous progress of understanding basic biology of cancer that ultimately will be translated to clinical care through translational research. Future of cancer research is very bright because of the exciting opportunities to make huge impact of cancer care through innovative targeted therapies and immunotherapies.

In addition, there is a huge opportunity to make impact through screening and early detection and also opportunity to intercept cancer driver in early stages and premalignant lesions through chemo and/or immune prevention strategy before cancer develops fully.

What would be your advice or comments for current medical students as well as those who aspire to become a doctor?

My advice to medical students who want to either practice as a physician or become an academician is very simple. They have to work extraordinary hard with pride and integrity and also they have to be unselfish team player in whatever they engage in to earn respect from their peers. I am a strong believer of following the quote from Benjamin Franklin, “God helps those who help themselves.”

WKMJ has readers from more than 10 countries globally. Please share your final words with our readers.

As far as cancer care is concerned, there is no boundary at all. Cancer is global problem not limited to US. One out of two in men and one out of three in women will develop cancer in their life time. To make impact we all have to work together as a team, without territories, to end cancer in our society.

Waun Ki Hong, M.D., F.A.C.P., D.M.Sc.(Hon.)

Head, Division of Cancer Medicine, The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center

Waun Ki Hong, M.D., F.A.C.P., D.M.Sc (Hon) is Division Head and Professor at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, an American Cancer Society Professor, and a Samsung Distinguished University Chair in Cancer Medicine.  A national and international leader in medical oncology, Dr. Hong is a foremost authority on the treatment and prevention of head and neck cancer and lung cancer. Dr. Hong has developed treatment approaches that have enabled thousands of laryngeal cancer patients to avoid radical surgery and enjoy a better quality of life, eradicating the cancer while preserving the ability to speak and swallow. Dr. Hong also is one of the founders of cancer chemoprevention and pioneered a new paradigm for cancer—the possibility that it can be prevented or delayed. Additionally, he was the main architect and principal investigator for BATTLE (Biomarker-integrated Approaches of Targeted Therapy for Lung Cancer Elimination), the first successful biopsy-driven trial in lung cancer. This formative work opened up a new paradigm of personalized cancer therapy in solid tumors. His expertise spans more than 36 years of unprecedented advances in translational and clinical cancer research. Dr. Hong has authored more than 660 scientific publications, edited 11 books, including Senior Editor of Holland-Frei Cancer Medicine Eighth Edition, and currently serves on the editorial boards of 6 scientific journals. He was one of the founding deputy editors of Clinical Cancer Research.

bottom of page