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Heine H. Hansen Award: Johan Vansteenkiste and Fiona Blackhall Honoured for Ground-Breaking Contributions to Lung Cancer Research [ESMO Press Release]

LUGANO, Switzerland; DENVER, CO, USA – The European Society for Medical Oncology (ESMO) and the International Association for the Study of Lung Cancer (IASLC) have the pleasure of announcing that the Heine H. Hansen Award 2021 is conferred on Johan Vansteenkiste, Professor of Medicine at the Catholic University of Leuven and Head of Clinic in the Respiratory Oncology Unit and its Clinical Trial Unit at University Hospitals Leuven. An internationally renowned clinical researcher and devoted educator in the field of lung cancer, Vansteenkiste will have the opportunity to give an award lecture at the upcoming European Lung Cancer Virtual Congress (ELCC) 2021. (1) The event will also feature the lecture of the 2020 award recipient Fiona Blackhall, Professor of Thoracic Oncology at Manchester Cancer Research Centre, University of Manchester, and Honorary Consultant in Medical Oncology at The Christie NHS Foundation Trust. (2) The Heine H. Hansen Award, which recognises outstanding contributions to lung cancer research and education, recognised Blackhall as a world-class scientist and small-cell lung cancer pioneer last year despite the cancellation of the 2020 edition of ELCC due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Johan Vansteenkiste: A lifelong commitment to improving outcomes in thoracic oncology


Vansteenkiste leads the Respiratory Oncology Unit at University Hospitals Leuven, where he has been involved in almost 300 lung cancer trials. He has served on the editorial boards of numerous peer-reviewed journals in the course of his decades-long career, including a current position as associate editor for Annals of Oncology. Among other achievements, Vansteenkiste conducted benchmark-setting research into the use of FDG-PET scan technology to diagnose, stage and monitor response to treatment of lung cancer at a time when significant progress was being made in the management of non-metastatic disease with multimodality treatment.

Vansteenkiste highlighted the emotional dimension that this distinction has for him: “I am very grateful and personally touched to receive the Heine H. Hansen Award. It closes the circle after 30 years of work with patients and clinical research inspired by Prof. Hansen himself, who was one of my mentors and responsible for drawing me to the field of thoracic oncology in the early 1990s,” he commented.

It was also in the early stages of his career as an oncologist and clinical researcher that Vansteenkiste became involved in the development of tyrosine kinase inhibitors (TKIs) for lung cancer patients carrying an EGFR mutation, a targeted therapy that he saw through to its implementation in the clinic several decades later. “Seeing what has been achieved with TKIs for metastatic patients in the last 10 years, it gives me great satisfaction to have been able to contribute to their success,” he stated.

Looking to the future of lung cancer treatment, Vansteenkiste believes that major advances with biomarkers for targeted therapy could also be achieved with immunotherapy, calling for further investigations into biomarkers to allow targeting of this type of treatment for individual patients in the metastatic setting. “For early-stage disease, the priority will be to gain a deeper understanding of the cancer biology and its evolution over time, using tools like circulating tumour DNA from liquid biopsies, to match patients to the adjuvant therapies that will truly benefit them and spare them additional treatments that may not be necessary,” he added.

Fiona Blackhall: Breaking new ground in small-cell lung cancer


Liquid biopsies have also opened up new perspectives in the field to which Blackhall has dedicated much of her research career: “I would like to use this award to highlight the unmet need in small-cell lung cancer, where progress has lagged behind non-small cell lung cancer in the last decade, partly because of the difficulty of obtaining sufficient tissue to study the cancer biology, conduct gene expression profiling and identify oncogenic drivers that could be matched to a targeted therapy,” she stated. “The possibility to study circulating tumour cells from blood samples has been a game-changer in helping us better understand the heterogeneity of small-cell tumours and identify molecular subtypes that could inform a personalised medicine approach.”

At The Christie Hospital in Manchester, Blackhall has created a research environment spanning lung cancer biology, liquid biomarkers, novel therapies, phase I-III clinical trials, radiotherapy and supportive care. She has published over 200 manuscripts including internationally leading research in circulating tumour cells (CTCs) and on precision medicines. Among other landmark studies, Blackhall led efforts to implant CTCs into mice and develop what are now widely adopted preclinical models mimicking patients’ clinical outcomes and response to treatment.  

“Receiving this distinction has felt like an affirmation of my initial decision to specialise in this field after being assigned to a lung cancer ward led by Prof. Nick Thatcher, who also worked closely with Prof. Hansen, during my general medical rotation. It led me into a career that has been highly engaging and deeply purposeful,” she commented. As an advocate of team science, it is the collaborative aspect of her work that Blackhall looks back on with the most pride.

She also believes that international collaboration will be key to fulfilling recently raised hopes for faster progress in this field going forward. “The striking thing about small-cell lung cancer is its initial sensitivity to chemotherapy and radiotherapy, followed by the rapid emergence of drug resistance, usually within one year of treatment. Understanding this change and the underlying biology is a major task for future research,” said Blackhall.


  1. Prof. Vansteenkiste will deliver his keynote lecture “Drop by drop makes a lake – 30 years of progress in lung cancer” during the European Lung Cancer Virtual Congress  2021 welcome session, Thursday 25 March, from 09:15 to 09:45.
  2. Prof. Blackhall will deliver her award lecture “Biopsies, biomarkers and biology” at the European Lung Cancer Virtual Congress 2021 on Friday 26 March, from 09:15 to 09: 45.

About the European Society for Medical Oncology (ESMO)

ESMO is the leading professional organisation for medical oncology. With more than 25,000 members representing oncology professionals from over 160 countries worldwide, ESMO is the society of reference for oncology education and information. ESMO is committed to offer the best care to people with cancer, through fostering integrated cancer care, supporting oncologists in their professional development, and advocating for sustainable cancer care worldwide.

About the International Association for the Study of Lung Cancer (IASLC)

IASLC is the only global organization dedicated solely to the study of lung cancer and other thoracic malignancies. Founded in 1974, the association’s membership includes nearly 7,500 lung cancer specialists across all disciplines in over 100 countries, forming a global network working together to conquer lung and thoracic cancers worldwide. The association also publishes the Journal of Thoracic Oncology, the primary educational and informational publication for topics relevant to the prevention, detection, diagnosis, and treatment of all thoracic malignancies. Visit www.iaslc.org for more information.

About ELCC

The ELCC Congress brings together some of the most important organisations in the field of thoracic oncology, with the scope of disseminating education through a multidisciplinary approach and improve the practice of lung cancer specialists worldwide. The ELCC Congress is organised by ESMO (European Society for Medical Oncology) and the IASLC (International Association for the Study of Lung Cancer), along with their partner societies ESTRO (European Society for Radiotherapy & Oncology), ESTS (European Society for Thoracic Surgeons) and ETOP (European Thoracic Oncology Platform)

Media contact:

ELCC Press Office



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