ASCO recognizes three MD Anderson faculty with highest honors

The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) today announced it will present three of its highest honors to faculty members from The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center during its virtual annual meeting in June. The three faculty members to be honored for their significant contributions to oncology are:

“Recognition from ASCO as special award recipients highlights these exceptional leaders’ commitment to ending cancer,” said Peter WT Pisters, M.D., president of MD Anderson. “We congratulate Dr. Gillison and Dr. Arun on their achievements, and we honor the legacy of Dr. Freireich. Their contributions to cancer prevention, care and research continue to have a significant impact on the lives of cancer patients and their families around the world.”

Gillison: David A. Karnofsky Memorial Award and Lecture

The David A. Karnofsky Memorial Award and Lecture is ASCO’s highest scientific honor. The annual award was founded in 1970 and recognizes an oncologist who has made outstanding contributions to cancer research, diagnosis and/or treatment. Gillison is a physician-scientist widely recognized as the foremost expert on head and neck cancer caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). Her research established the link between HPV and oropharyngeal cancer in 2000, resulting in a paradigm shift in determining the risk, diagnosis and treatment of head and neck cancer.

Gillison found that HPV causes about 70% of oropharyngeal cancers in the U.S., where rates have risen dramatically in male adults in recent decades. After proving the link between HPV and oropharyngeal cancer, Gillison found that HPV status is the greatest determinant of prognosis, with better outcomes for HPV-associated oropharyngeal cancer. Her practice-changing findings contributed to new diagnostic tests, staging criteria, and treatment guidelines for this cancer, as well as clinical trials of less-intensive therapy for HPV-associated oropharyngeal cancer. She also was senior investigator on clinical trials that led to the approval of checkpoint inhibitors for head and neck cancer.

Gillison has produced population-level evidence to demonstrate the effectiveness of the HPV vaccine in reducing oral HPV rates among men in the U.S., supporting the 2020 approval of HPV vaccines for this indication and underscoring the importance of continued efforts to increase HPV vaccination rates among young adults.

In 2017, she brought her molecular epidemiology and medical oncology experience to MD Anderson, where she is co-leader of the HPV-Related Cancers Moon Shot®. Gillison is a member of the National Academy of Medicine and a Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas scholar. Her current research focuses on the genomic instability that leads to HPV-positive head and neck cancer development, as well as new targets for therapy.


Arun: ASCO-American Cancer Society Award and Lecture

The ASCO-American Cancer Society Award and Lecture, first conferred in 1993, honors the achievements of individuals who have made noteworthy contributions to the prevention and management of cancer. As a breast cancer medical oncologist and clinical researcher, Arun has advanced care and prevention for individuals with breast cancer and those with hereditary cancer syndromes. She has served as the principal investigator of several breast cancer prevention trials with agents such as celecoxib, atorvastatin and bexarotene, as well as trials with PARP inhibitors for metastatic breast cancer.

Her clinical interests include breast cancer treatment, biological markers, chemoprevention and breast cancer genes, including BRCA and others. Her research focuses on identifying risk biomarkers for breast cancer and prevention, characterizing risk factors in a cohort of high-risk women with hereditary gene mutations, assessing breast cancer biology in these patients and increasing access to genetic services in underserved populations.

Arun is co-medical director of one of the largest clinical cancer genetics programs in the nation. The Clinical Cancer Genetics Program at MD Anderson provides hereditary cancer risk assessment, genetic counseling, genetic testing and individualized cancer screening to people who are concerned about their personal and family history of cancer.

She also serves on the ASCO BOLD Task Force and the ASCO prevention Education Committee. She is a member of the NCCN breast cancer risk assessment committee and is co-chair of the SWOG Prevention Committee. Arun was recognized as a Fellow of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (FASCO) in 2020. The FASCO distinction recognizes ASCO members for their extraordinary volunteer service, dedication and commitment to ASCO.

Freireich: Distinguished Achievement Award (posthumous)

The Distinguished Achievement Award, created in 2009, recognizes leadership or mentorship by a scientist, practitioner or researcher in any subspecialty of oncology that has benefited members and/or their patients. Freireich was selected to receive the award posthumously for his groundbreaking work in developing innovative therapies for childhood leukemia and his enduring legacy as a trailblazing scientist and mentor. Considered the founding father of modern clinical cancer research, Freireich passed away in February 2021 at age 93.

Freireich collaborated with IBM to develop the first-ever continuous-flow blood cell separator that extracted platelets and white blood cells from whole blood to transfuse into leukemia patients. He also developed the multidrug regimen that paved the way for curing most children with ALL.

In 1965, Freireich joined MD Anderson, where he developed combination therapies for various cancers based on his work in treating childhood leukemia. Freireich and his faculty pioneered the development of many early curative chemotherapy regimens — including the CHOP regimen in lymphoma, 5-fluorouracil-Adriamycin-cyclophosphamide (FAC) in breast cancer and CYVADIC in melanoma sarcoma.

Beyond his research, Freireich was devoted to recruiting and mentoring talented scientists, many of whom are now leaders in their respective fields. He initiated a unique core curriculum required by Graduate Medical Education (GME) governing bodies and granting agencies, chairing MD Anderson’s GME Committee for years. He also served as the long-time leader of Institutional Grand Rounds, where faculty members share their research with colleagues and trainees. Although Freireich retired in 2015, he continued to return to campus to teach students and consult faculty until the COVID-19 pandemic put a stop to that in March 2020.

Over the course of his luminous career, he co-authored more than 600 scientific papers and more than 100 books. He was honored with numerous accolades from national organizations.