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Five individuals awarded our Medal of Honor

‚ÄčThe Medal of Honor, our highest recognition, is awarded to distinguished individuals who have made valuable contributions in the fight against cancer through basic research, clinical research, and cancer control.

The evening of Oct. 18, during a black-tie celebration at the Ronald Reagan International Trade Center in the nation's capitol, five people who have made outstanding contributions in the fight against cancer were presented with the American Cancer Society Medal of Honor.

They are:

  • The Honorable Joseph R. Biden Jr., for Cancer Control
  • Emmanuelle Charpentier, PhD, for Basic Research
  • Jennifer Doudna, PhD, for Basic Research
  • Charis Eng, MD, PhD, for Clinical Research
  • Michael J. Thun MD, MS, for Cancer Control Science

"It's truly an honor to celebrate these individuals for their dedication and lifetime achievements that have significantly impacted the fight against cancer," Gary Reedy, our chief executive officer, said. 

Originally called the American Cancer Society Award, the Medal of Honor was first presented in 1949 to Bowman C. Crowell, MD, who had recently retired as director of the American College of Surgeons in Chicago. He was honored for his efforts to improve the standards at cancer clinics. 

Candidates for the Medal of Honor are nominated nationwide. A special awards workgroup selects winners and shares recommendations with the American Cancer Society Board of Directors.

More about our 2018 Medal of Honor awardees

  • Former Vice President Joe Biden headed President Obama's National Cancer Moonshot task force, which resulted in more than 80 new actions and collaborations from public and private sectors to speed progress in cancer prevention, diagnosis, treatment, and care, and worked with Congress to authorize an additional $1.8 billion for investment in cancer research. After the death of his son from brain cancer, Biden launched a nonprofit called the Biden Cancer Initiative.  As co-chair, he has led a highly skilled and well-regarded Board of Directors in bringing a sense of urgency to develop and drive implementation of solutions to accelerate progress in cancer prevention, detection, diagnosis, research, and care, and to reduce disparities in cancer outcomes.
  • Emmanuelle Charpentier, PhD, is a professor and researcher in microbiology, genetics, and biochemistry. Since 2015 she has been director of the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology in Berlin, Germany. Charpentier is best known for her role in deciphering the molecular mechanisms of the bacterial CRISPR/Cas9 immune system and repurposing it into a tool for genome editing. This tool has revolutionized the speed and power of genetic-based cancer research models, and allowed new questions at the heart of certain cancers to be addressed. Dr. Charpentier is recognized as a leading expert in the fundamental mechanisms of regulation in infection and immunity in bacterial pathogens. As a result, this field of research is now developing rapidly with huge potential for further advancement of therapeutic tools to treat forms of cancer that have been resistant to treatment via other methods (e.g., tumor suppressor mutations).
  • Jennifer Doudna, PhD, is a biochemist, professor of chemistry in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, and professor of biochemistry and molecular biology in the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of California, Berkeley. She has been an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) since 1997. She directs the Innovative Genomics Institute, a joint UC Berkeley-UC San Francisco center, and has been a leading figure in what is referred to as the "CRISPR revolution" for her fundamental work and leadership in developing CRISPR-mediated genome editing. This highly significant genome editing tool has been critical to cancer research and holds vast potential as a therapeutic tool to treat forms of cancer that have been resistant to treatment.
  • Charis Eng, MD, PhD, is the chair and founding director of the Genomic Medicine Institute of the Cleveland Clinic, founding director and attending clinical cancer geneticist of the institute's clinical component, the Center for Personalized Genetic Healthcare, and professor and vice chair of the Department of Genetics at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine. She was honored with an American Cancer Society Clinical Research Professorship in 2009. More recently, she was elected to the National Academy of Medicine of the U.S. National Academies of Sciences for her achievements and leadership in genetics- and genomics-based research and personalized healthcare. As a leader in personalized care, she has translated genomic and cellular analysis to clinical practice. Her work has set a standard for the study of hereditary predisposition and its role in cancer. Early in her career, Dr. Eng published seminal work connecting different mutations in the RET gene to different manifestations of multiple endocrine neoplasia (type 2). Her famous discovery of the connection between mutations in the PTEN tumor suppressor gene and Cowden's Syndrome led to important contributions in the biochemical and cell biological activities of this critical tumor suppressor. This also led her to studies of many types of cancer including breast cancer, and to studies of hereditary predisposition. Dr. Eng's research demonstrated that mutations in PTEN coupled with mutations in SDHx (succinate dehydrogenase) increase the risk for development of breast cancer. She is now working to better understand how that might occur at a biochemical and cellular level. More recently, her laboratory has discovered another potential tumor suppressor gene, KLLN, which also seems to increase risk for development of breast cancer through perturbation of the cell cycle. 
  • Michael J. Thun, MD, MS, former vice president of epidemiology and surveillance research at the American Cancer Society, is a world-renowned cancer epidemiologist whose studies across broad areas of cancer control research, from chemoprevention to tobacco and obesity, have helped shape public health policies against cancer. Early in his career, as an epidemic intelligence health officer and staff scientist for Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Thun studied occupational and environmental exposures and established himself as a national expert on the health hazards of cadmium and uranium in factory workers. During Dr. Thun's tenure at the American Cancer Society from 1989 to 2012, his research focused on a wide range of topics, including tobacco, excess body weight, alcohol consumption, aspirin, and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. Findings from this research have informed public health policies and shaped national cancer prevention and control guidelines and recommendations. In a 1991 seminal paper in the New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. Thun reported that regular aspirin use at low doses may reduce the risk of fatal colon cancer. This work was a catalyst for clinical trials evaluating the efficacy of aspirin for the chemoprevention of gastrointestinal cancers. Together, these efforts led to the 2016 United States Preventive Services Task Force's recommendation for routine use of low-dose aspirin for the primary prevention of cardiovascular disease and colorectal cancer in certain adults aged 50 to 59 years.

Past recipients of the Society's Medal of Honor include:

  • Former U.S. President and First Lady George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush
  • Former U.S Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts
  • George N. Papanicolau, MD, inventor of the Pap test
  • Robert C. Gallo, MD, recognized for his achievements in pioneering the field of human retrovirology
  • Judah Folkman, MD, a leading researcher in the field of antiangiogenesis
  • Former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, MD
  • Advice columnists Ann Landers and Abigail Van Buren
PHOTOS: Top photo, from left, CEO Gary Reedy; former vice president Joe Biden; Emmanuelle Charpentier, PhD; Charis Eng, MD, PhD; Jennifer Doudna, PhD; Michael J. Thun, MD, MS; and Board Chair Kevin Cullen, MD. In the smaller image, from left, Gary Reedy, Michael J. Thun, MD, MS, and Board Chair Kevin Cullen, MD.

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