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Guest Blog: A Life’s Work

Published on July 12, 2016 in Our Impact, Leadership Spotlight

Guest Author: W.K. Alfred Yung, MD, Special Advisor to the CEO, National Brain Tumor Society

Dr. W.K. Alfred Yung is Professor of Neuro-Oncology and Cancer Biology, as well as the Margaret and Ben Love Chair of Clinical Cancer Care, at MD Anderson Cancer Center. Dr. Yung recently stepped down from him position as Chair of the Department of Neuro-Oncology, a position he held since 1999, at the famed cancer center, and while keeping a number of appointments at MD Anderson, has agreed to formally join the National Brain Tumor Society as Special Advisor to the CEO.

For as long as I can remember, I wanted to work in medicine. The need for medical care is a universal truth. No matter your socioeconomic status, sex, race, religion, ethnicity, every one will see a doctor at some point in their lifetime; whether it’s only the movement they come into this world, or the final days before they leave it.

Dr. Alfred Yung

For many, health issues can unfortunately become a dominant factor in their lives, requiring ongoing and/or frequent medical interventions. And in these cases the importance of quality clinical care and the need for dedicated physicians is critical – it can change and even save lives. This is what drove me towards a degree in medicine. I wanted to be part of the solution to one of life’s great equalizers.

Though I originally aspired to become a primary care physician, my experiences in medical school – understanding the limitations we have in treating many serious illnesses – I decided I wanted to be involved in biomedical research and teaching. Thus, I set out on a path to work in medical academia, where I split my time between seeing patients in the clinic, working in the lab, and helping to train the next generation of physician-scientists.

At the time, the mid 1980’s, a large majority of cancers were death sentences. In particular, brain cancer patients – whom most related to my focus at the time of neurology – had particularly dismal outlooks.

In the early 1970’s, the only treatment option for many brain tumor patients was surgery. Radiation didn’t become a part of standard of care for brain cancer patients until the late 1970’s. Chemotherapy wouldn’t be successfully added to standard of care for brain cancer patients until 1993 – still 20 years away. As a result, the average life-span after diagnosis for a patient with glioblastoma (GBM), the most common malignant brain tumor, was just 9 months. I grew frustrated that how little we understood this disease, how few options patients had, and the dismal survival figures. I decided brain tumor research and treatment was where I needed to focus all of my energy.

Dr. Yung (center) with the rest of the Defeat GBM Research Collaborative team at the 2015 NBTS Scientific Summit

After three years working as a fellow in the neuro-oncology department at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, I was recruited to Houston, Texas to help build a thriving neuro-oncology department at the famed MD Anderson Cancer Center.

When I arrived at MD Anderson it was still the early 1980’s, and the neuro-oncology department had three faculty. With the administration’s support, and with the recruitment of the “father of Neuro-Oncology,” Dr. Victor Levin, we were able to build MD Anderson’s brain tumor department into the largest free-standing neuro-oncology group in the country, and likely the world, over the next 10 years.

During the course of my 35 years in neuro-oncology at MD Anderson, we’ve seen that nine-month prognosis for median survival – noted above – rise to current estimates of up to 18 months. While the doubling of median survival times for GBM patients over the course of my career can be considered progress, the hard numbers are still not good enough. Patients and their loved-ones need more time and more hope.

Dr. Yung (left) shares a laugh with NBTS CEO David Arons (center) and Director of Research Program Strategy and Community Relations Kristina Knight (right) during a break at the 2015 Society for Neuro-Oncology Annual Meeting

Patient advocacy groups, like the National Brain Tumor Society, have long played an important role in pushing researchers and clinicians – like my colleagues and me – to quicken the pace of discovery and translate science into new therapies that can help patients. NBTS, in particular, has been relentless in its work to turn over every stone that might accelerate research toward new, more effective treatments. This is what attracted me to get involved with the organization.

I began working as a volunteer scientific advisor to NBTS in 2009, and, in addition to their doggedness, I became particularly taken by their understanding of the brain tumor research and development system, the challenges that exist, and the interventions that would be needed to knock down barriers to progress. And I’ve been happy to work with, and counsel, NBTS on a number of their key initiatives, including serving as Scientific Director for the Defeat GBM Research Collaborative.

Now, as the brain tumor field as a whole enters into a new exciting era of progress, an “inflection point” as Vice President Joe Biden calls it, I am happy to take on an increased, official role at NBTS as Special Advisor to the CEO. This new role will allow me to work more closely with NBTS staff in advising their initiatives, so that we can create systemic change in the way new treatments are researched, developed, and brought to market for brain tumor patients.

Dr. Yung (left) with Drs. Terri Armstrong (center) and Patrick Wen (right), leaders of NBTS’ Clinical Trial Endpoints Initiative

Again, this is an organization that truly understands the challenges and opportunities that exist in brain tumor research and drug development. Their portfolio of programs in directed-research, funded-research, and public policy advocacy are addressing many of the issues that have held brain tumor research back…with the intent to allow my colleagues in academia to speed more findings from their labs to the clinic.

I’m hopeful that my years of experience in this field will allow me to make significant contributions that will further allow NBTS to be a catalyst for change in the neuro-oncology field. Beyond technical expertise, I also share with the dedicated staff at NBTS the unwavering desire to put patients at the forefront; to make sure every initiative in the field is taking into account what patients, and families and friends of patients, have to go through with this terrible disease. I’m honored to officially work as a member of this, the largest patient advocacy organization dedicated to the brain tumor community.

It is my hope – and expectation – that together we can help NBTS realize its mission and become ever more impactful.

Thank you for welcoming me into your community.


Alfred Yung, M.D.

Special Advisor to the CEO, National Brain Tumor Society

Professor of Neuro-Oncology, MD Anderson Cancer Center

Chair Emeritus, Neuro-Oncology Department, MD Anderson Cancer Center

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