Newswise — Waun Ki Hong, M.D., a trail-blazing physician-scientist and mentor whose clinical research innovations led to successful organ-sparing cancer treatment, advanced the field of targeted therapy and launched chemoprevention, died Wednesday at his home in California.

Hong, 76, retired from The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center as head of the Division of Cancer Medicine in 2014. He remained as a special advisor to a variety of MD Anderson programs that nurtured the careers of young scientists.

“Waun Ki Hong’s brilliant clinical research and his mentorship of hundreds of clinicians have extended the lives and improved the quality of life of cancer patients everywhere,” said MD Anderson President Peter WT Pisters, M.D. “His colleagues at MD Anderson remember Dr. Hong as an optimistic, engaging and creative leader. He’ll be greatly missed, but he leaves a powerful, far-reaching legacy both personally and professionally.”

Services are pending. He is survived by his wife, Mi Hwa, his two sons, Edward and Burton, and four grandchildren. 

Known to friends as “Ki” (pronounced “Key”), he conceived, designed and completed clinical trials described by colleagues as brave and innovative that led to practice-changing advances.

“Ki Hong also was passionate about mentorship and many in the field are indebted to his selfless advice and help through the years,” said Patrick Hwu, M.D., Hong’s successor as head of Cancer Medicine at MD Anderson and one of many who considered him to be an important mentor and colleague.

Three crucial advances

“Most of us involved in cancer research and treatment hope to make a major impact in a single area. He broke new ground in three major fields,” Hwu said. 

As chief of medical oncology at the Boston Veterans Administration Medical Center in the early 1980s, Hong led a series of landmark clinical trials showing that patients with laryngeal cancer fared just as well when treated with chemotherapy and radiation as those who underwent surgery that removed the larynx, robbing them of the ability to speak. This model helped shift treatment in other types of cancers as well.

Known as the father of chemoprevention, Hong conducted a clinical trial at MD Anderson to treat precancerous lesions for oral cancers that established proof of principle for preventing cancer by treating its precursor growths.  The trial opened the field to other organ sites, such as the use of tamoxifen and raloxifene to prevent breast cancer.

Hong conceived and organized a unique clinical trial using biopsies to identify molecular targets in patients’ tumors and then matching treatment to the appropriate targeted therapies, a new field of therapy. It was such a new approach at the time that research funding agencies doubted its feasibility. Hong secured the participation of several drug companies and funding from the U.S. Department of Defense to launch the Biomarker-Based Approaches of Targeted Therapy for Lung Cancer Elimination (BATTLE) trial, which showed that a personalized approach was not only feasible, but highly promising. Treatment with targeted therapies is now routine in lung and other cancer types.

Hong earned his medical degree from Yonsei University School of Medicine in 1967. After completing his military service, he had an internship at Bronx/Lebanon Hospital in New York City and then his residency at the Veterans Affairs (VA) Medical Center in Boston.  Hong then served a two-year fellowship at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York before returning to the VA Medical Center as Chief of Medical Oncology.

Hong came to MD Anderson in 1984 as section chief in head and neck medical oncology. He led the Division of Cancer Medicine from 2001 to 2014. He was a past president of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) and served on the board of directors of the American Society for Clinical Oncology (ASCO).

In 2013, he was elected to the National Academy of Medicine and as an Inaugural Fellow of the AACR Academy. He was awarded the American Cancer Society’s Medal of Honor in 2012. He won numerous international awards as well as major honors from AACR and ASCO.

His expertise and advice were widely sought, including appointment by President George W. Bush in 2008 to the President’s Cancer Panel, a three-member committee that advises the president on the National Cancer Program.  He also served in a variety of advisory capacities for the National Cancer Institute, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and many cancer centers and private companies.

As a tribute to his extraordinary contributions to cancer research, care, and prevention, in 2016 the AACR established the AACR Waun Ki Hong Award for Outstanding Achievement in Translational and Clinical Cancer Research. The award is given each year to a young investigator who has conducted significant translational or clinical research anywhere in the world.