Katharine Dexter McCormick and Stanley McCormick Memorial Professor; Professor and Chair, Department of Radiation Oncology, Stanford University
For her contributions to the development of new radiotherapy-treatment paradigms for cancer of the head, neck, and lungs, and for her leadership in medicine on prominent national panels and as chair of the Department of Radiation Oncology at Stanford University.
The past decade has revealed a number of new advances in cancer research, the result of deliberate, persistent, and coordinated efforts of scientists and medical practitioners around the globe.
Oncologist Quynh-Thu Xuan Le has devoted her nearly two-decade career to that effort. She is the first woman to lead Stanford’s radiation-oncology department, one of the oldest and most advanced centers of its type in the country. Her research has led to more effective identification of specific cancer types, a crucial step toward targeted treatment.
“Dr. Le is one of the leading researchers in head and neck cancer in the world,” said Albert Koong, Professor of Radiation Oncology at Stanford.
Le came to such an accomplished career through a remarkable path. In 1979, she and her family were among the thousands of “boat people,” the mass exodus of refugees who fled a crumbling Vietnam by sea. Le, then 12, remembers being crammed into an overpacked boat, sailing harsh conditions, even surviving an encounter with Thai pirates. “It was quite the journey,” Le said.
Le’s father, a doctor who spoke fluent English, settled the family in Northern California in 1981 so that he could train to practice medicine in the United States. Le excelled in school, and just four years later, was accepted to Caltech.
While a student, Le participated in three summer undergraduate research fellowships and credits longtime professor of geography Edwin “Ned” Munger with inspiring her to go into medicine. “Ned was instrumental in scoping my life, perhaps because he wasn’t a scientist,” Le said. “He helped send me to South Africa to work with a university and a hospital in Durban. I realized there that I loved people, that it was hard to see suffering, and that I wanted to devote my life to medicine.”
BS, Biology and Chemistry, Caltech, 1989
MD, University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), 1993
Residency, UCSF, 1997
Co-Director, Radiation Biology Program, Stanford Cancer Institute (2004 - Present)
Katharine Dexter McCormick and Stanley McCormick Memorial Professor, Stanford University School of Medicine
Chair, Department of Radiation Oncology, Stanford (2011 - Present)
Director of Clinical Research, Department of Radiation Oncology, Stanford (2005 - Present)
Other Leadership Roles
Chair, Education Committee,
American Society for Radiation Oncology (2012 – Present)
Treasurer and Member of the Executive Committee, American Radium Society (2013 – Present)
Chair, Head and Neck Cancer Committee, NRG Oncology Group (2012 – Present)
Through her research, Le has identified a number of biomarkers for specific head and neck tumors; this discovery could aid in targeting treatments quickly. As chair of Stanford’s radiation oncology department, Le is credited for seeking out new technology and research from across multiple disciplines in order to advance more comprehensive therapies. She also chairs a national committee responsible for administering large clinical trials to study radiation and chemotherapy treatments in head and neck cancers.
“We want to identify tumors with ever greater certainty, then deliver treatment with greater precision,” Le said. “New advances in biology, genetic sequencing, and engineering are speeding those efforts, but there is still more to do.”
“She is absolutely omnivorous when it comes to techniques that would impact the patient, whether in the lab or clinic,” said Gary Luxton (PhD ’70), radiation physicist and Professor of Radiation Oncology, Emeritus, at Stanford. “She commands enormous respect.”
“For me it always returns to the patient,” Le said. “Ultimately, the goal is to add years—quality years—to a person’s life. I can’t think of a higher calling.”
by Ben Tomlin
Photo: Jon Rou