Waun Ki Hong, eminent role model, was always years ahead of the field

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This week, we lost a cancer research pioneer, and friend and mentor to many in the field, with the sudden death of Waun Ki Hong, M.D., a world-renowned clinical researcher who leaves behind a remarkable legacy.

He was a trail-blazing scientist whose innovations led to successful organ-sparing cancer treatment. Best known as the father of chemoprevention, his groundbreaking clinical trial at MD Anderson to treat precancerous lesions for oral cancers established proof of principle for preventing cancer by treating its precursor growths. This rapidly rippled to improve treatment for other disease sites, such as the use of tamoxifen and raloxifene to prevent breast cancer.

Breakthroughs such as these earned him many of the oncology field’s most prestigious accolades during his career at MD Anderson, starting in 1984 as Head and Neck Medical Oncology section chief and then leading the Cancer Medicine Division from 2001 to 2014, in addition to serving as the institution’s vice provost for clinical research from 2012 to 2013.

Dr. Hong was truly loved and revered worldwide. He was so deeply respected that few of us could actually address him as “Ki” as he requested. Every time I tried, “Dr. Hong” would come out of my mouth instead. All of those around him knew that, in his heart, he always wanted the best for us.

Waun Ki Hong and Patrick Hwu

Waun Ki Hong presents Patrick Hwu with the 2009 Mentor of the Year Award

– Photo courtesy of private collection of Waun Ki Hong

After my parents died, he was one of the only individuals left in the world who wanted to help me unconditionally, requiring absolutely nothing in return. He was so proud when I took over his post as head of cancer medicine at MD Anderson, especially since I was the first chair that he had recruited in 2003.

Although he was a very humble man, he was always on the forefront of science. Whether it was in his own innovations in organ-sparing therapy, chemoprevention, or the first personalized cancer therapeutics trial (the “BATTLE” trial for lung cancer), he was always years ahead of the field. One of the reasons I was attracted to join MD Anderson in 2003 was due to the cutting-edge cell therapy facility that he had sponsored within the Division of Cancer Medicine, well over a decade before T-cell therapy became a hot topic in oncology.

Dr. Hong was an eminent role model. His hard work and consistency were legendary. We used to joke that we could set our watches by his unwavering office hours, which started at 6:30 a.m.!

His ability to organize team science was unparalleled. He continuously articulated the importance of working together to accomplish ambitious and impactful science with the end goal of benefiting patients. Nobody was more passionate about mentoring young talent.

He was famous for his sports analogies, especially developing the “farm team” to enhance the future organization. He guided us to strategize systematically and methodically, putting “points on the board” as our projects progressed.

In recognition of his love for sports, I was joined by fellow musicians Dan Karp and Gabe Hortobagyi to play a special version of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” at his “surprise” 70th birthday party in 2012: “Translate this to the clinic, Bench to bedside or bust…” It was fitting that he was invited to throw the first pitch at a Red Sox game in 2015. He was so proud that his ball went over the plate, while even Tom Brady’s the month before had hit the dirt!

Even after retiring from full-time employment, he continued to be a role model in how to step aside gracefully. He concentrated on his family—especially cherishing time with his grandchildren, consulted for academic institutions across the globe, and continued to mentor fellows and junior faculty at MD Anderson.

Up until the very end, he was committed to the next generation of scientists, calling our office to set up mentoring calls with our “Advanced Scholars,” a program he initiated to cultivate young talent by funding them for an additional year of research protected time beyond their Hematology/Medical Oncology Fellowship training.

He was the personification of a leader’s leader, showing in every action his value of integrity, innovation, and hard work. To honor him, we should live with the selflessness and generosity that he embodied. We need more role models like Dr. Hong. We must follow and expand on his lead to collaborate across individuals, departments, institutions, and countries to accomplish great things that will benefit the world.

The author is head of the Division of Cancer Medicine at MD Anderson Cancer Center.

Patrick Hwu
Head, Division of Cancer Medicine, MD Anderson Cancer Center
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Patrick Hwu
Head, Division of Cancer Medicine, MD Anderson Cancer Center