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In Memory of Dr. Waun Ki Hong the Physician-Scientist who Transformed and Redefined Cancer Treatment

Special Report

Issue19_August 2019

In January of this year, the cancer medicine field and the medical community at large lost a legacy. Dr. Waun Ki Hong, past division Head and Professor at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, past President of the American Association of Cancer Research (AACR), and a Samsung Distinguished University Chair in Cancer Medicine lived a full and accomplished life before passing in the close presence of family. He was 76.

It was a great honor to have interviewed Dr. Hong and have shared his story with our readers in the 12th issue of the World Korean Medical Journal (WKMJ). In this first issue of WAMJ, we would like to commemorate Dr. Hong’s lifelong contributions that have inspired not only Asian-American healthcare professionals, but also those across the globe to further the healthcare field.

Waun Ki Hong was born on August 13, 1942 in South Korea, and grew up amidst World War II and the ensuing Korean War. By enduring such a tumultuous time in his home country, he learned to develop resilience and perseverance very early on. In 1967, Dr. Hong received his medical degree at the Yonsei University School of Medicine, and soon after served as a flight surgeon in the Vietnam War. There, he practiced a high sense of duty that he would continue to carry throughout his medical career and personal life. After marrying whom would be his lifelong partner, Mi Hwa in 1969, Dr. Hong and his then pregnant wife immigrated to the United States with two things: $451 and their determination to seize better opportunities for the family and Dr. Hong’s career.

As a foreign medical intern at the Bronx/Lebanon Hospital in New York City, Dr. Hong faced language and cultural barriers, as well as challenges that came along with his new parenthood. However, with tenacity and patience, Dr. Hong completed his internship and afterwards, a medical residency at the Boston Veterans Affairs (VA) Medical Center. Upon completion of his two-year medical oncology fellowship at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, Dr. Hong returned to the Boston VA Medical Center as Chief of Medical Oncology.

During his time there, he transformed the hospital’s treatment of laryngeal cancer by moving beyond the disease-centered model and into patient-centered care. Dr. Hong’s research alongside Dr. Gregory Wolf revealed that chemo- and radiotherapy combination treatment would result in the same survival rate as surgical removal of a patient’s voice box, which was the prevailing method of treatment at the time. Since Dr. Hong’s discovery, patients have been able to combat cancer without compromising their ability to speak, and in 1991, the study was published in the New England Journal of Medicine. What followed was an improved standard of care for laryngeal cancer patients in hospitals across the nation.

Dr. Waun Ki Hong also emphasized preventative measures in cancer treatment. After joining the MD Anderson Cancer Center as Chief of Head and Neck Oncology in 1984, Dr. Hong established the concept of chemoprevention. Rather than treating patients already diagnosed with a form of cancer, he demonstrated how a high dosage of retinoic acid had the capacity to reverse oral premalignant lesions, and furthermore prevent the development of cancer in high-risk patients. The then novel approach was recognized by Nobel Laureate Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn, and received positive reception that sparked dialogue and efforts to make prevention a part of regular cancer treatment.

Dr. Hong would go on to accomplish further milestones in cancer research and medicine, one of which was in lung cancer treatment. The implementation of the BATTLE clinical trial (Biomarkerbased Approaches of Targeted Therapy for Lung Cancer Elimination) informed the development of other newly targeted therapies for cancer. With such major breakthroughs, Dr. Hong played a vital role in establishing MD Anderson as what AARC Chief Executive Officer Maragret Foti described as “arguably one of the most important clinical and translational cancer research and care centers in the world.”

The list of Dr. Hong’s remarkable accomplishments is endless. He had published over 660 scientific publications, edited 11 major books, acted as an editorial board member for 17 scientific journals, and served in numerous science and policy committees, including those for Stand Up to Cancer(SU2C), the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR), the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the National Cancer Institute, the National Cancer Advisory Board, the President’s Cancer Panel under George W. Bush, and several international committees. Additionally, Dr. Hong was the recipient of many awards from the AACR, the American Cancer Society, the American Society of Cancer Oncology, as well as the Ho-Am Prize in Medicine from the Samsung Foundation.

Dr. Waun Ki Hong’s remarkable character, however, extended beyond his contributions as a physician-scientist and researcher. He was a proactive mentor and professor to clinical and postdoctoral fellows, and according to his close colleagues, derived great fulfillment in educating the younger generations of physician-scientists and basic researchers. Dr. Waun Ki Hong often cited his oldest brother, Dr. Suk Ki Hong, M.D., Ph.D. as his life-long role model and supporter, and sought to provide the same mentorship to his students and mentees whom he envisioned would advance the field of oncology.

While Dr. Waun Ki Hong leaves behind his legacy in medicine, he was first and foremost a husband, father, and grandfather who immensely valued his relationships with his family. Moreover, Dr. Hong was a person of duty and service to not only the health profession at large, but also to the individual people he encountered and developed strong relationships with.

The WAMJ community remembers Dr. Waun Ki Hong for his scientific advancements, proactive guidance, as well as his people and patient-oriented character that always sought to better the lives of others. His contributions and words have resonated and will continue to remain with us.

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