Larry Kwak honored in Korea as recipient of prestigious Ho-Am Prize

July 5, 2016 | by Letisia Marquez

City of Hope’s Larry Kwak, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Toni Stephenson Lymphoma Center, received well-deserved high honors when he traveled to Korea recently to receive the prestigious 2016 Ho-Am Prize in Medicine.

Kwak was fêted at a gala event. A video featuring his research was broadcast to hundreds of people in attendance. Countless Korean and foreign dignitaries congratulated him for this achievement, including a Nobel laureate and a prime minister.

The Ho-Am Prizes recognize people of Korean heritage who have made significant medical advances. Kwak received the award for his leading-edge research in immunology and therapeutic cancer vaccines. Recipients are awarded a diploma, gold medal and prize money (approximately $268,000.)

Kwak, who was named to TIME magazine’s TIME100 as one of the world’s 100 most influential people for his research, recounts what it was like to be celebrated in his parents’ native country, and why the award holds such a special significance.

1) Receiving the Ho-Am Prize in Korea is a significant honor. For readers who might not be aware of the magnitude of that honor, can you please explain?

The Ho-Am Prize is awarded annually in five areas (medicine, science, engineering, arts and community service) to individuals of Korean descent anywhere in the world. The prizes are generally regarded as the Nobel Prizes of Korea. They are sponsored by the Ho-Am Foundation, which is dedicated to enhancing the welfare of mankind. The award was established in honor of Samsung Corporation’s founder Byung-chull Lee, whose pen name was Ho-Am.

2) What kind of reception did you receive in Korea?

During the ceremony, preceremony symposia and gala events that took place over three days, Ruth, my wife, and I met many Korean and foreign dignitaries. These included then Korean Prime Minister Choi Kyoung-hwan; Lee Kun-hee, chairman of the Samsung Group; Aaron J. Ciechanover, a Nobel laureate who received that prize in 2004 for his contributions to chemistry, and Rune Toftgård, chairman of the Nobel Prize selection committee.

The ceremony itself was very formal and well-rehearsed. It was held in both Korean and English. Each prize recipient and his spouse – including the couple who received the Ho-Am Prize in Community Service – were seated in large, ornate chairs on stage. Before each award was presented, a short video chronicling the recipient’s accomplishments was shown. I felt quite honored to be on that stage and truly humbled to receive such recognition.

3) What significance did this hold for your family?

The experience was really special for my family. We were so glad both sets of parents were healthy enough to travel to Korea for the ceremony. I acknowledged my family in my acceptance speech because there is a strong legacy of service to mankind among us.

My maternal grandfather, Oh Chung Soo, was the first Korean to graduate from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1927. He later returned to Korea to serve as Minister of Commerce and was awarded the Presidential Medal in 1983.

My father, Nowhan Kwak, came to the U.S. in 1952 to earn a Ph.D. in physics and was a university professor until his retirement.

My mother, ChangSook Oh, obtained both a bachelor and master’s degree in music in the U.S., and taught children for over 40 years. I described how, as a child, my parents encouraged my sister and me to pursue professions in which we could enhance the welfare of mankind, and also instilled in us the values of hard work and motivation.

Several people came up to me afterwards and said they were touched by my remarks. One person even had known my grandfather, which to me was amazing in a country of 50 million people!

4) What can you tell us about the other honorees, and how did it feel to be a part of that highly accomplished group?

We shared many moments and conversations between rehearsals and the ceremony. We quickly bonded as a group. The winner of the Ho-Am Prize in Science, Myungshik Kim, a physicist at Imperial College London, and his wife were a delightful couple from London.

The winner of the Prize in Engineering, Jun Ho Oh, a professor at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, is a world-renowned inventor of robots. It is amazing how functional he was able to make robots. His work really awakened my curiosity about robots being a reality one day.

The winners of the Prize in Community Service – Hyun Soo Kim and Soon Sil – were so inspiring in their work reaching out to homeless youth in Korea. We are all looking forward to a reunion next year.

5) How has the award made you reflect on your career and the impact you've made?

This is an exciting time in cancer research. In high school during a pivotal internship experience, my first mentor introduced me to the idea that our immune system can be harnessed to fight cancer. That was more than 25 years ago so, for me, the meaning of the Ho-Am prize is the value of perseverance. We had to solve why the early cancer vaccines didn’t work and how to overcome these obstacles over a long period of time.

With the dramatic recent successes of immunologic therapies in the clinic, many groups worldwide are now revisiting cancer vaccine approaches, based on our early work. To receive the Ho-Am Prize in Medicine for these efforts is both rewarding and humbling, but there is still more work to be done.

It’s also made me reflect on how much I love my job at City of Hope. I wake up every morning anticipating that today is another day we might make a laboratory discovery that will make an immediate impact for cancer patients. My passion is to inspire patients, fellow researchers and the next generation of physicians and scientists to have faith and courage.

Another way of saying this is that I personally believe each of us has a purpose on earth, and as a patient once told me, “I’m fortunate to be an instrument of God.”

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