Dr. Michael P. Link speaking during the 2015 ASCO Annual Meeting.
Dr. Link’s research has led to important advances in the management of Hodgkin lymphoma, non-Hodgkin lymphomas, and bone and soft tissue sarcomas in children. He was the first, and, so far, the only, pediatric oncologist elected to lead ASCO from 2011-2012, since the Society’s inception in 1964. During his term as ASCO President, Dr. Link spearheaded the formation of ASCO's Cancer Survivorship Committee, which addresses the long-term survival issues facing patients with cancer and their families.
Early Beginnings in Pediatric Oncology
In an interview with the ASCO Daily News Evening Edition, Dr. Link commented on the personal significance of the Pediatric Oncology Award.
“It is truly an honor to join the list of pediatric oncologists who have received this recognition in the past; these are the people whom I consider the major movers and shakers in pediatric oncology,” he said. “It acknowledges a lot of work that I have done, and I am flattered to be this year’s recipient.”
Dr. Link credits the strong mentors and advisors he met as a resident and pediatric oncology fellow for steering him on the path of studying childhood cancers. Specifically, he emphasized the influence of Harvey Cohen, MD, whose work and approach to patient care he admired as a young resident.
“Just watching him take care of his patients was a major influence on me that drew me into the field,” he said. “Once I completed my first rotation taking care of patients with cancer, I was hooked. There was no question that this was what I wanted to do, and I never regretted the decision.”
Dr. Link continued: “Plus, I had spectacular mentors and teachers early on—notably Howard Weinstein, MD, and Stephen Sallan, MD—who provided me with the tools and opportunities to launch a successful career.”
Looking Ahead: Minimizing Treatment Toxicity
Over the past few decades, there has been enormous progress made in treating patients with hematologic malignancies, such as acute lymphoblastic leukemia and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
“The change has been incredibly dramatic,” Dr. Link said. “During my career, the survival rates for acute lymphoblastic leukemia have gone up from 35% to 40% to more than 90%.”
The situation was even graver for patients with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, when Dr. Link first started his career.
“At the time when I was still a resident, almost all patients with non-Hodgkin lymphoma ultimately died, while now we are able to cure the overwhelming majority of them,” he said.
Dr. Michael P. Link
“This remains a challenge that we have not yet solved,” he said. “We have to acknowledge that the consequences of having been treated and cured of a childhood cancer are still formidable, and there is much work to do to try to eliminate them.”
In collaboration with investigators from Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Dr. Link is presently working on finding new ways to minimize the administered therapies in children with Hodgkin lymphoma who have a favorable prognosis. Specifically, one trial is designed to study how effective combination therapy with or without radiation is in patients with the most favorable presentations of Hodgkin lymphoma, while a second trial incorporates a relatively new agent into the frontline therapy for patients with more advanced disease.
“These are exciting studies that we hope will move the needle further to improve the outcomes and long-term quality of life of patients,” he said.
Despite the many advances over the past few decades, important challenges to treating childhood cancers still remain to be solved. One of them is helping patients in low-resource countries achieve the same cure rates as those in high-resource countries.
“The heartbreak is that we have the recipe to cure these children. We know how to do it, but low-resource countries often simply don’t have the facilities, the infrastructure, and, sometimes, even the drugs to treat children with cancer,” Dr. Link said. “This remains an enormous challenge for the children of the world.”
He also noted that less progress has been made in finding effective treatments for children with metastatic neuroblastoma, brain tumors, and sarcomas. Treating patients who present with advanced or recurrent disease also remains a major challenge.
“Recurrent leukemia is still one of the leading causes of death from cancer in children,” he said.
On a more positive note, Dr. Link is confident that there has never been a more exciting time to address these issues.
“We have a much better understanding of the underlying biology of childhood cancers, as well as the ability to develop new targeted therapies and utilize recent advances in immunotherapy to treat them,” he explained.
Dr. Link believes that young oncologists should see these challenges as opportunities to make their own mark on oncology. As a first step, he would advise them to identify a mentor or an organization that will support them on this path.
“In my own career, I hooked my star to ASCO,” he said. “I can’t express how grateful I am for what ASCO has meant to me, both in terms of exposure to key people in my career and in my life, opportunities to learn about the public policy affecting our patients, and opportunities to learn how to be an advocate for patients and their families.”
During his lecture, Dr. Link will provide an overview of his team’s latest achievements in the treatment of Hodgkin lymphoma. He will also address some of the important issues facing young oncologists today and provide practical guidelines on how they can enhance their career prospects early on.