The magazine of UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center

Spring/Summer 2013

Hsing-Jien Kung

“Truly exceptional”

Hsing-Jien Kung takes on new challenges in Taiwan

Hsing-Jien Kung retired earlier this year as UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center’s deputy director of basic science and has taken on a new challenge as president of the National Health Research Institutes in Taiwan, an organization similar in function to the National Institutes of Health in the United States.

Fortunately, the emeritus professor’s departure does not mean an end to his relationship with UC Davis. He already is looking toward expanding collaborations between the two countries to hasten the quest for cures for some of the world’s most intractable diseases.

“I have been so very blessed at UC Davis with well-funded research and wonderful colleagues. No one in this position should be thinking of leaving,” says Kung. “But I look forward to facilitating innovative, cross-disciplinary, integrative research in a country with limited resources but great potential.”

A legacy of excellence

Kung arrived at UC Davis in 1998 when only a handful of laboratories throughout the campus focused on cancer research. As the cancer center’s deputy director and chief of basic science, Kung oversaw the transformation of the cancer center into a world-class research institute, helping to achieve National Cancer Institute designation as a cancer center within only four years’ time, and as a comprehensive cancer center last year — remarkable achievements for a relatively young institution.

Kung has a reputation as one of the most brilliant scientists at work on prostate cancer, with a particular interest in understanding the role of cancer-causing oncogenes and growth factors. He is also an enormously respected leader, mentor and colleague to all who have worked with him, as he is known to offer unfailing support along with his probing scientific questions.

“Hsing-Jien is special not just in his ability to do science — a lot of people can do science,” says Ralph de Vere White, cancer center director. “It’s his ability to bring everyone else along that is truly exceptional.”

One of the individuals he brought along was 43-year-old David Boucher, now a biomedical engineering research scientist in the Sutcliffe Laboratory. Kung recruited Boucher 14 years ago when Boucher was an undergraduate. He says Kung’s mentorship struck just the right tone.

“Dr. Kung gave us the independence to really direct our own research,” Boucher says. “But if there was something we thought would help us, he would always support us. He gave us the confidence that we could do research.”

A vision of cross-cultural collaboration

Established in 1996, the National Health Research Institutes is a nonprofit, autonomous organization under the supervision of the Taiwan Department of Health, dedicated to enhancing medical research and improving health care in the country. Kung, who was raised in Taiwan, will oversee all of its institutes, which include cancer research, cellular and system medicine, population sciences, biotechnology and pharmaceutical research, and infectious diseases and vaccinology. Research, developing technology and training are major thrusts of the institutes.

Kung is looking toward enhancing the research capabilities of both the Taiwan Institutes and UC Davis by combining their resources. For example, according to Kung, many cancers have important genetic and environmental factors that may best be discerned with large studies comparing different ethnic populations. He intends to combine study populations across the ocean to create larger clinical trials and make use of the varied expertise from both institutions.

“I’ve learned over the years that collaborative research is the most productive,” says Kung. “The whole often turns out to be greater than the sum of the individual parts.”

Many of the Taiwan Institutes’ researchers have trained under Kung at UC Davis, and, in his new position, he plans to expand exchanges between the two institutions. He will also maintain his own laboratory at UC Davis, continuing to do active research.

A beloved leader

In February, Kung’s colleagues, students and friends came together to celebrate his career at a symposium and reception. Not surprisingly, research was a major focus of the afternoon, with older colleagues summarizing Kung’s major contributions to cancer research and younger scientists presenting their current research under Kung’s guidance. Topics ranged from basic research in virology and cancer cell biology to clinical trials for new breast cancer therapeutics.

All spoke with warmth and great respect for a mentor and colleague who was described as leading with a keen mind, hard work and unfailing kindness.

Colleen Sweeney told how she arrived at UC Davis feeling as if she were in the shadow of her husband, Kermit Carraway, who had been recruited to the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Medicine. Sweeney — now associate professor in the same department and co-director of the breast cancer research program — expressed gratitude for Kung’s role in her career.

“I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for taking me under your wing and not doubting my abilities,” she said in sentiments echoed by many of the researchers who spoke at the symposium.

In concluding the symposium, de Vere White offered the highest praise for the man he recruited 15 years ago to lead esearch.

“Hsing-Jien can be extraordinarily proud of what he is leaving behind — the cancer center is well known for wanting to do real science and doing it better,” he said. “I don’t think we could have recruited all the great scientists we have without Hsing-Jien and his enormous credibility. He led with kindness and with absolute passion that we should all be as good as we can be.”

De Vere White concluded that he hoped Kung will be like the son that you’re proud has launched, but you don’t want to leave the nest. Only half-jokingly he added, “I hope he continues to come home for Sunday dinners.”