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Waun Ki Hong, trailblazing MD Anderson scientist, dead at 76

January 4, 2019

Dr. Waun Ki Hong, an MD Anderson Cancer Center physician-scientist whose research advanced organ-sparing treatment, the use of chemotherapy to prevent cancer and therapy that precisely targets tumors, died Wednesday in Newport Beach, Calif.,. He was 76.

Hong, who retired from MD Anderson in 2014 but continued to serve the institution as an adviser on a variety of programs, nurtured the careers of young scientists, and designed and conducted innovative clinical trials that broke ground in three major fields.

“Waun Ki Hong’s brilliant clinical research and mentorship of hundreds of clinicians have extended the lives and improved the quality of life of cancer patients everywhere,” Dr. Peter Pisters, president of MD Anderson, said in a statement. “He’ll be greatly missed, but he leaves a powerful, far-reaching legacy personally and professionally.”

In the early 1980s, Hong led a series of landmark clinical trials demonstrating that patients with laryngeal cancer fared just as well when treated with chemotherapy and radiation as those who underwent surgery to remove the larrynx and thus were robbed of their ability to speak. The finding inspired research that showed such benefits in other cancers.

He also conducted a clinical trial that established that oral cancers could be prevented by treating precancerous lesions, which earned him the reputation as the father of chemoprevention. The trial jump-started the field and led to the use of drugs such as tamoxifen and raloxifene to prevent breast cancer.

Hong’s third major influence involved matching patient treatments to molecular targets identified in biopsies, a then new approach whose feasibility was doubted by funding agencies. Hong nevertheless secured funding and led a national trial. His approach is now routine for lung and other cancer types.

Hong is survived by his wife, Mi Hwa; his two sons, Edward and Burton; and four grandchildren. Memorial services will be held in California Jan. 12.

todd.ackerman@chron.com

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