Spotlight On: Ernest Hawk

Issue 27 Summer/Fall 2016

Sir Richard Peto, FRS

Sir Richard Peto, FRS
Professor, Medical Statistics and Epidemiology
Co-director, Clinical Trial Service Unit and Epidemiological Studies Unit
University of Oxford, U.K.

Moving prevention to become, in his words, 'Plan A' in the fight against cancer has been the lifelong dream of Dr. Ernest Hawk, the 2015 recipient of the American Society of Clinical Oncology-American Cancer Society Award for Significant Contributions to Cancer Prevention. Hawk is now division head for Cancer Prevention and Population Sciences at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. Born in Detroit and trained as a medical oncologist, Hawk said he was drawn as a young doctor to the field of cancer prevention.

"Early on in my training at UCSF, I realized the limitations of traditional cancer therapy - and the promise of prevention," he said. "In my opinion, I was just coming at the disease far too late. That was the first, very personal awakening in my own professional career: That prevention is important, although far too infrequently practiced."

Listening to patients was key, he said. They were of course focused on treatment, and getting better, but "they were very interested in what they could do - not only for themselves, but for their family members, friends, and community," to lower the overall cancer burden.

In bestowing its 2015 award, ASCO/ACS cited Hawk's "untiring efforts" in promoting cancer prevention research to further that goal.

Over the past few decades, Hawk "has helped elevate prevention and control as the first strategy to address cancer, whether through molecular prevention, lifestyle modifications, screening and early detection, or policy and educational initiatives," ASCO-ACS said in a statement.

At the molecular level, he has been instrumental in chemoprevention research - for example, studies involving the cancer-preventing powers of NSAID painkillers, COX-2 inhibitor drugs, as well as drug combos that might lower cancer incidence in particularly high-risk populations.

He has also worked hard to include more minority and underserved populations in clinical research, and to integrate aspects of behavioral science and prevention strategies within clinical trials.

According to Hawk, there's now clear proof that prevention is moving to the forefront of the battle against cancer.

For example, "moving from 45%-50% of the population using [tobacco] to 18% is a huge advance," he said. The development and regulatory approval of the HPV vaccine has been another big step forward.

Indeed, the advent of the vaccine highlights the true power of prevention to become 'Plan A' against cancer, Hawk said. "We now have strategies that could virtually eliminate cervical cancers in our lifetimes," he noted.

Of course, outreach remains crucial in maximizing the benefits of cancer prevention efforts. That's why much of Hawk's current work at MD Anderson focuses on ensuring that poor and underserved populations in the United States and abroad reap the benefit.

"We have the expertise to deal with these issues - how can we improve the delivery system, so that they reach those who need them?" he said. Hawk received his medical degree at Wayne State University and a master's in public health at Johns Hopkins University. After finishing a cancer prevention fellowship at the National Cancer Institute, Hawk continued on in numerous positions at the agency, including director of the NCI's Office of Centers, Training and Resources. He joined MD Anderson in 2007 and also holds the T. Boone Pickens Distinguished Chair for Early Prevention of Cancer.

Besides the ASCO-ACS award, Hawk has also received the NCI Research Award for Distinguished Achievement in Cancer Prevention. He has published more than 175 scientific articles and book chapters, and holds editorial positions at Cancer Prevention Research and Cancer Medicine.