Larry Kwak is one of the top research scientists in the world investigating new ways to fight cancer. In 2010, TIME magazine included him in a list of the 100 most influential people in the world for his ground-breaking work on immunotherapy treatments for cancer patients. Earlier this year, Kwak was awarded the Ho-Am Prize in Medicine (considered the “Korean Nobel Prize”) for his work. Below, Kwak shares with BioLogos how his faith in Christ inspires his scientific work.
BioLogos: Your current position is with the organization City of Hope. Tell us a little bit about your involvement there.
Larry Kwak: City of Hope is one of the 45 comprehensive cancer centers in the United States. It’s a medical research center that is focused almost exclusively on cancer. It has both clinical facilities for patient care as well as research facilities. As an MD and Ph.D, I engage in both. However, I am more in charge of research for City of Hope.
What motivated you to join the medical profession and specifically to deal with cancer medicine?
I had an inspirational experience during a summer internship in high school which motivated me to devote my life to a career in cancer research. My internship experience was in a hospital laboratory. The job itself consisted mostly of menial tasks. However, after work every day, my mentor—who was a pathologist—would invite me into his office for about an hour and would show me slides of cancer cells under the microscope. Interspersed within the cancer cells were normal immune cells (cells of the immune system). He challenged me to ask the question, “Why are those immune cells there?” Even more importantly, “Can those immune cells be harnessed to fight cancer?” That mentorship experience inspired me to seek a career as a dual physician and scientist. I wanted to be the scientist in the laboratory making discoveries, but I also wanted to be the physician who was able to share those same discoveries with patients directly.
In 2010, you were listed as one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People. Can you tell us about this honor?
I received this award for my 20-year history of persevering with the idea that we can one day harness the immune system to fight cancer. The word perseverance means a lot to me because in the early days [immunotherapy for cancer] was not a very popular idea. Most of my fellow scientists didn’t believe in it. There weren’t many of us in the field who pursued this idea for that reason.
The Time 100 article uses the word “vaccine” related to your award. Is the goal of immunotherapy to develop a vaccine for cancer?
Yes. Immunotherapy is a general term for the field. Cancer vaccines are a specific type of immunotherapy—this is where I’ve made a contribution to the field. A cancer vaccine would work much like the vaccinations that children receive today. For example, the polio vaccine consists of a portion of the polio virus, which is injected into the child in order to activate their immune system. This is done so that if they ever come in contact with the virus, their immune system is primed to fight it. The strategy for the cancer vaccine is similar. We take a portion of the cancer cell and inject it into the patient with the idea that it should activate the immune system to fight the cancer cells. The big difference between these two, however, is that in the case of the polio vaccine, we are preventing disease, and in the case of the cancer vaccine, we are attempting to combat a problem that’s already well entrenched in the body. At the stage at which the vaccine would be administered, the cancer would have already found ways to subvert the immune system. This makes developing an effective cancer vaccine a complicated and difficult task. It is these obstacles that took us 20 years to overcome.
How close are we to finding a cure for cancer?
We aren’t quite at the point where I foresee a cure for cancer being discovered in the near future. Our goal for cancer research over the next five years is not necessarily cure it, but to control it. My personal goal is to find a way to turn cancer into a chronic disease, like high blood pressure or diabetes. These are diseases for which we do not have cures, but we are able to control them with medication.
How has your faith journey intertwined with your journey in the medical profession?
There are times when I see God’s intervention in my work. For example, 20 years ago, in 1995, my very first patient was in such bad shape physically that if we did not give her the vaccine she needed within a few months, she would be too sick to receive it. This vaccine, however, had only ever been tested on our laboratory animals up until this point, and we were a few years away from testing it on a person. So, as you could imagine, we had to go through quite a few hurdles to try and get this vaccine to be approved by the FDA for use on a person for the first time.
At the eleventh hour, we got a call from the FDA saying that the vaccine had been approved to be used on my patient. The call was received on a Friday, and the following Monday was the cut-off date for when we would no longer be able to administer the vaccine.
I believe it was God’s hand that really moved things forward at this critical time. My wife likes to remind me that my career has never been my own, that moments of intervention such as these shows God’s hands in my work.
When you look back at your career, what is the accomplishment of which you are most proud?
More than anything, I feel fortunate that my personal, God-given calling is my job. I’ve been able to personally, as a physician on the cutting-edge of scientific discoveries, offer patients some of the most important breakthroughs before they become available generally. For example, I still receive a Christmas card every year from that patient who first received the vaccine. She is still alive and her disease is under control. The cards she sends always thank me for helping her see her children graduate from high school and graduate school. Those kinds of meaningful, human interactions speak to the kind of impact that a physician working on the cutting-edge of medicine can have for patients. And, when I look back over my career, it is these moments for which I am most thankful—and of which I am most proud.
I’ve also had patients tell me over the years that, to them, I am an instrument of God. Hearing this reminds me that I am working in my “sweet spot,” so to speak. I am able to go to the lab each day with anticipation that today might be the day that we make a discovery that will change the lives of patients all over the world. Getting paid to do a job I love this much is the ultimate privilege.