Two MD Anderson faculty members honored with highest distinctions from ASCO

The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) will recognize two physician-scientists from The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center with two of its highest distinctions at its annual meeting in Chicago.

Ethan Dmitrovsky, M.D., provost and executive vice president and professor of Thoracic/Head and Neck Medical Oncology and of Cancer Biology, will be honored for his efforts in cancer prevention and control with the 2016 ASCO-American Cancer Society Award and Lecture. Waun Ki Hong, M.D., professor of Thoracic/Head and Neck Medical Oncology and former head of Cancer Medicine, will be honored for the major impact he has had on the field as well as for his long-standing commitment to ASCO with the Special Recognition Award.

“The extraordinary efforts and seminal contributions of these two leading physician-scientists have made an enduring impact in the assault against cancer,” said Ronald DePinho, M.D., president of MD Anderson. “These high honors recognize two incredible researchers who have not only transformed cancer medicine but, through their gifted leadership, have made MD Anderson a global leader in cancer research and care.”

Research benefits leukemia and lung cancer patients

Dmitrovsky will receive the ASCO-American Cancer Society Award and deliver a lecture on Monday, June 6.

As an MD Anderson leader who also works at the bench and in the clinic, he is grateful for the honor.

“I am humbled and honored to receive this recognition,” he said. “It is a privilege to serve the oncology community and our patients whether as an oncologist, physician-researcher, mentor or leader.”

Dmitrovsky is being recognized for his groundbreaking work on the mechanisms behind the tumor-suppressing effects of natural synthetic derivatives of vitamin A, known as retinoids.

He and his team helped establish use of all-trans-retinoic acid (ATRA) for acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL), the vital component in combination treatment that leads to complete remission and five-year survival of over 90 percent of patients. APL was frequently fatal prior to this finding. Dmitrovsky and colleagues also developed and patented a genetic test that is often used to diagnose APL and monitor treatment.

Dmitrovsky now focuses on lung cancer, building on his work with APL.

His team has:

  • discovered a protein-destroying pathway responsible for retinoids’ effects on cancer because it degrades the abnormal PML-RARalpha fusion protein and other oncogenes;
  • reported the first transgenic mouse model that expressed PML-RARalpha;
  • engineered mouse models that recapitulate human lung cancer biology and guide therapies in the clinic;
  • conducted clinical trials that confirmed the same pathways identified in the lab were engaged in treatment of lung cancer patients.

New approaches to cancer prevention and treatment

Hong will be presented with the Special Recognition Award at the ASCO President’s Dinner on Friday, June 3.

He said he is honored to receive this reward for his research, especially from an organization he helped build.

“I thank the wonderful colleagues and trainees who have been a part of our MD Anderson team,” said Hong. “It is vital that we always work collaboratively to advance our knowledge, and never lose sight of our patients who rely on us.”

In the early 1980s, Hong conceived and 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 ultimately resulted in removing the larynx and losing the ability to speak. This new model helped shift treatment toward organ conservation in other cancers, including anal and breast cancer.

He is one of the founders of cancer chemoprevention research and pioneered a new paradigm for cancer – the possibility that it can be prevented or delayed. His studies demonstrating that high-dose retinoic acid can reverse oral premalignant lesions and prevent the development of second primary tumors were the first to prove that chemoprevention can work in humans.

Hong also led the development of personalized molecular targeted therapies for lung cancer. He established the groundbreaking Biomarker-Based Approaches of Targeted Therapy for Lung Cancer Elimination (BATTLE) clinical trial for lung cancer, a first-of-its-kind effort to match treatment to tumor characteristics. His most recent project, Profiling of Resistance Patterns and Oncogenic Signaling Pathways in Evaluation of Cancers of the Thorax and Therapeutic Target Identification (PROSPECT), has identified several molecular targets and pathways in cell lines that predict drug sensitivity and resistance.  Clinical application of these findings is underway in developing and testing personalized therapeutic strategies for non-small-cell lung cancer and mesothelioma.