A world leader in leukemia treatment who is widely acclaimed as one of the most innovative and visionary clinical translational cancer researchers of our time, Hagop Kantarjian (BS '75, MD '79) heads the largest leukemia practice in the United States.
Kantarjian is professor and chair of the Department of Leukemia, Division of Cancer Medicine at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, and the Samsung Distinguished Leukemia Chair in Cancer Medicine. A faculty member since 1983 at MD Anderson in Houston, Texas, Kantarjian was awarded the Kelcie Margaret Kana Research Chair in 1998. He is associate vice president of Global Academic Programs and a non-resident fellow in health policy at the Rice University Baker Institute.
Born in Beirut in 1954 during years of peace and prosperity, Kantarjian was profoundly influenced by Lebanon's challenging civil war years and like many of his former classmates at AUB in the 1970s and 1980s, he decided to immerse himself in work and dedicate his life to helping others.
Personal qualities of resilience, perseverance, and patience, combined with an aptitude for deep concentration and the ability to creatively and consistently experiment rewarded Kantarjian, the researcher, with positive outcomes for his work on cancer treatments. Kantarjian understands that relaxation is a key component of creativity and he finds his creative passion in painting, particularly landscapes in the fauvist style. This, and jogging through Houston's beautiful parks, help free his mind and refresh his thinking.
Kantarjian has markedly advanced the field of hematologic cancers and revolutionized the treatment of many types of leukemia, particularly in the areas of chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML) and acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL). He spent decades developing new research protocols that transformed CML from a death sentence to a chronic ailment with close to normal long-term survival rates. Kantarjian helped create the hyper-cyclophosphamide, vincristine, doxorubicin, and dexamethasone (hyper-CVAD) regimen and its derivatives (incorporating tyrosine kinase inhibitors and antibodies) for treating ALL in adults. These increased the cure rates in adult ALL from 20-30 percent up to 50-60 percent. He found lifesaving uses for drugs that had been abandoned, including important medications such as clofarabine (Clolar) and decitabine (Dacogen). He pioneered the use of epigenetic therapy in leukemia.
As a physician who cares about the continued wellbeing of his patients, Kantarjian is a strong advocate for affordable cancer drugs and has helped lead a multi-year campaign to lower the cost of cancer drugs. In 2014, he appeared on the television show 60 Minutes and said, “The only drug that works is a drug that a patient can afford."
In commenting on Kantarjian's prodigious success and productivity, his mentor—also a giant in cancer research—Emil J. Freireich, noted his mentee's photographic, encyclopedic memory. “He does his research in his head. Then he assembles the proper team for the project and keeps that team running efficiently—all while managing half a dozen other research teams and running his department. It's an incredible talent, and it makes him more productive than any traditional researcher could ever be." Kantarjian himself attributes his success to mentors who encouraged him to ignore tradition, challenge every idea, and dare to seek improvement.
The author of more than 1,800 articles in medical and public health literature, Kantarjian is the winner of the Penrose Award (1979) and the AUB Medical Alumni Gold Medal Award (1999). His honors include the Leukemia Society of America's Outstanding Service to Mankind Award (1997), the Ben Qurrah Award (2010), the Mayo Clinic's Robert A. Kyle Award for Outstanding Clinician Scientist (2011), the 37th Jeffrey A. Gottlieb Memorial Award, the American Association for Cancer Research Joseph H. Burchenal Memorial Award (2013), the lifetime achievement award for dedication to research and clinical practice from Castle Connolly (2014), and several awards from University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, including the first Emil J. Freireich Award for Outstanding Clinical Research (1997), the Waun Ki Hong Award for Excellence in Team Science (2008), and the John Mendelsohn Lifetime Scientific Achievement Award (2008).