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Profile: Ernest T. Hawk, M.D.

Conquest - Spring 2008

By Mary Jane Schier

Ernest T. Hawk, M.D.

His enthusiasm for medicine evolved from an early desire “to help people,” but Ernest T. Hawk, M.D., didn’t decide how best to do so until he began exploring cancer at the molecular level.

“In the late 1980s, I became fascinated by the molecular biology revolution. As I learned more about how cancer develops, I got increasingly interested in prevention, especially chemoprevention. Today, I’m more excited than ever about the great impact that prevention can have on everyone’s life,” he explains.

Hawk says that he’s “thrilled” to be the new leader of  M. D. Anderson’s far-reaching cancer prevention efforts.

“The opportunities to help elevate cancer prevention to the next level are just fantastic here,” notes Hawk, who in November 2007 was appointed vice president and head of the Division of Cancer Prevention and Population Sciences. 

Before coming to M. D. Anderson, Hawk spent nearly 15 years at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) in Bethesda, Md. Upon finishing a three-year cancer prevention fellowship at NCI, he was one of the first clinically oriented oncologists asked to join a research group there. He held several key administrative posts while conducting chemoprevention research focused on nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and COX-2 inhibitors. Some of his research involved collaborating with experts at M. D. Anderson to design and conduct landmark chemoprevention clinical trials.

“Even though I knew about many of M. D. Anderson’s achievements in cancer prevention, I’m more impressed every day by the breadth and depth of the research and the commitment to educate the public and health care professionals about the enormous potential of prevention,” Hawk says.

As the new leader of M. D. Anderson’s
cancer prevention programs, Hawk makes
daily exercise a top priority.

A native of Detroit, Hawk excelled in academics. As valedictorian of his high school graduating class, he received a full scholarship to Wayne State University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree with high distinction in biological sciences. 

“My parents, who both worked in the auto industry, were proud that I was the first in the family to go to college and then delighted when I was accepted to Wayne State’s School of Medicine. That’s where I saw my first cancer patients and became interested in cancers of the gastrointestinal tract,” Hawk recalls.

After receiving his medical degree in 1985, Hawk completed an internship and internal medicine residency at Emory University’s affiliated hospitals in Atlanta. While working as a staff physician at the Atlanta Veterans Affairs Medical Center and Grady Memorial Hospital for three years, he enjoyed treating patients but was “increasingly intrigued” about emerging molecular biology research.

In 1991, Hawk was accepted for a two-year clinical fellowship in medical oncology at the University of California School of Medicine, San Francisco. That academic center was then home to J. Michael Bishop, M.D., and Harold E. Varmus, M.D., who shared the 1989 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for discovering the first human oncogene. Their findings about how cancer begins at the molecular level and other scientific discoveries influenced Hawk’s changing interest from treating malignancies to preventing them.

The 1993-1996 period provided pivotal experiences for Hawk. During the initial part of his cancer prevention fellowship at NCI, he earned a master’s degree in epidemiology and biostatistics at Johns Hopkins University School of Hygiene and Public Health.

“Learning the quantitative methods needed to conduct translational research and clinical trials was stimulating, and soon I was immersed in the development of new agents for promising targets and planning how best to incorporate novel intermediate endpoints into clinical trials,” remembers Hawk, who after the fellowship was invited to join NCI’s Chemoprevention Branch.

In 1997, Hawk was promoted to medical officer for the Chemoprevention Branch. Two years later, his research group was split into four, including the Gastrointestinal and Other Cancers Research Group that he headed. In 2002, he received the NCI Research Award for Distinguished Achievement in Cancer Prevention.

Four years ago, he was asked to direct the NCI’s Office of Centers, Training and Resources. In that position, he coordinated a portfolio of grants involving cancer centers, translational research and training, totaling more than $500 million. He also chaired the Translational Research Working Group that was developing a strategic plan for the nation’s investment in translational cancer science.

Hawk smiles as he says, “I loved working as a public servant and thought I’d be at NCI for the rest of my professional career. However, there are unparalleled opportunities at M. D. Anderson to advance all aspects of cancer research and to ensure that cancer prevention is not just a promising theory but an increasingly compelling component of our clinical approach to the disease.”

Hawk counts on Executive Assistant Cheri McClellan
to keep track of his busy schedule.

During the last decade, Hawk enjoyed chemoprevention research collaborations and co-authored journal articles with several faculty members at M. D. Anderson, among them Bernard Levin, M.D., previous head of the Division of Cancer Prevention and Population Sciences, who retired in fall 2007.

“I look forward to building on Dr. Levin’s successes and strengthening our spectrum of prevention programs,” Hawk states.

His early plans include developing an effective database and computerized tracking system for all cancer prevention research projects and services.

“Hopefully, within a year, we’ll have a new system to better characterize our activities. We need to describe each project with regard to its scientific goals, its translational potential and the population that it intends to benefit, such as healthy individuals, people at elevated risks due to familial history or lifestyle choices, cancer survivors and so on,” Hawk explains. “This initiative should stimulate our faculty, staff, potential research participants and others to always think about where our research is going in a very tangible manner.”

Hawk also intends to initiate a simple mnemonic, or memory aid — termed the ABCs for clinical trials — which he helped create at NCI. “A” stands for preventive agents; “B” for intermediate biomarkers of efficacy; “C” for cohorts of people at risk; “D” for clinical trial design; and “E” for endpoints of clinical efficacy.

“By focusing on enhancements in one or more of these critical elements, clinical research can be accelerated,” he says, “and time is everyone’s most precious resource.”

Hawk anticipates broadening prevention research by working closely with John DiGiovanni, Ph.D., chair of M. D. Anderson’s Department of Carcinogenesis and director of the Virginia Harris Cockrell Cancer Research Center in Smithville, Texas, and Garth Powis, D.Phil., director of M. D. Anderson’s Center for Targeted Therapy in the Red and Charline McCombs Institute for the Early Detection and Treatment of Cancer.

“Our goal for these collaborations is to discover, develop and bring to clinical trials an array of chemoprevention drugs and biologic agents that can attack molecular defects inside early cancer cells and correct malfunctions in precancerous cells long before clinical symptoms occur,” he notes.

Getting adjusted to who works where across M. D. Anderson’s Main and South campuses has been “challenging,” but Hawk says he appreciates “how helpful everyone has been.”

He’ll also feel more settled once his family moves to Houston. For now, he commutes frequently to see his wife, Diana, whom he met in the seventh grade, and their three children: Christiana, 14; Melina, 13; and Grant, 9. His mother also lives with the family in a small rural community about 35 miles from Baltimore.

Besides heading the Division of Cancer Prevention and Population Sciences, Hawk is ad interim chair of the Department of Clinical Cancer Prevention. He serves as deputy editor for Cancer Prevention Research and senior editor for Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention. Over the years, he’s contributed to more than 90 journal articles and 12 books. His research has led to two patent applications.

Looking ahead, Hawk is concerned about the shortage of scientists and clinicians devoted to cancer prevention as well as resources necessary for translating the most promising prevention discoveries into widespread use.

“I firmly believe that our division has the capacity to be the definitive resource for educating the public and health care professionals about state-of-the-art practices in cancer prevention and the critical role that research plays,” he says. “We must work harder than ever to assure we can be a dynamic training group for future generations of researchers and practitioners committed to cancer prevention as well as the broader mission of improving overall health.

Conquest - Spring 2008

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