By Erika Jonietz
A Pioneer's Pursuit
Cancer researcher Waun Ki Hong has bettered the lives of countless patients
By Erika Jonietz
Reserved and understated, Waun Ki Hong is nonetheless a passionate guy. One glimpse of the corridor walls outside his 11th floor office at M. D. Anderson Cancer Center reveals a personal passion: Boston-area sports. Twenty-two years in Houston haven't dimmed Hong's enthusiasm for the Red Sox or the Patriots. He proudly points out photos of the 2004 world champion Red Sox baseball team that line the hall, and a picture of his young granddaughter in a Sox shirt on Yawkey Way alongside Fenway Park holds pride of place on his desk. But the photo just outside his office door is perhaps the most telling: alongside Patriots' football jerseys labeled "Brady" and "Vinatieri" hangs one marked "Hong."
And though Hong doesn't play football, he's a celebrity in his own right, and it's the other—bigger—passion of his life that has driven him to that point. As the head of M. D. Anderson's Division of Cancer Medicine, he currently guides more than 280 faculty members in 14 academic departments toward a single goal: carrying out cutting-edge research that can be translated into patient benefit. "I have a huge responsibility," he says—but it's one he clearly relishes.
From the beginning of his career in medical oncology, Hong has pursued ways to translate cancer research into practical treatments. In the 1970s, he helped develop one of the first organ-sparing cancer therapies, a technique to preserve the voice boxes of patients with laryngeal cancer. For many years, the standard treatment was surgical removal of part or all of the larynx, a procedure called laryngectomy, which frequently destroyed a person's ability to speak and made swallowing difficult. As chief of medical oncology at the Boston Veterans Administration (VA) Medical Center, Hong performed a pilot study that showed a combination of chemotherapy and radiation could be as effective as surgery but preserved patients' quality of life. Hong followed up this small initial study with a nationwide trial comparing the two techniques, and today his treatment is available to most patients with even advanced laryngeal cancer.
"That's been the story of Ki's career," says medical oncologist William Hait, director of the Cancer Institute of New Jersey and president-elect of the American Association for Cancer Research. "He has the ability and drive and tenacity to get research out of the lab to people. Very few people have that combination; he's one of the really rare people who can do that."
Long before "translational research" became a buzzword for the conversion of basic laboratory findings into useful patient treatments, it was Hong's specialty. His passion for it led him to Houston and the University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in 1984. "I realized that to make a further impact, you have to have basic research and translational research," he says. "The VA was not the right place to do that. M. D. Anderson gave me the opportunity to pursue really state-of-the-art, comprehensive cancer research." Recruited as chief of the Department of Head and Neck Medical Oncology, Hong set about pioneering the fields of translational research and chemoprevention.
In the early 1980s, people had been talking about the possibility of preventing the development of cancer with chemical agents, and several lab studies seemed promising. "Cancer doesn't develop overnight," Hong says. "It culminates after a multistep process." The idea behind chemoprevention is that the right drugs, given at the right time, can short-circuit or even reverse that process. "It was Ki Hong who showed you could do this in people," says Hait.