David Ho, as a professor at Rockefeller University and the founder of the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center in the USA, has started a new journey of AIDS vaccine after the disputed cocktail therapy has left him away gradually.
Staff Reporter Mao Dong-lei Photoreportage
David Ho, professor at Rockefeller University and the founder of the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center in the USA, was invited to be one of the honored guest speakers and gave a speech at the 4th China Annual Conference of Drug Information Association (DIA) a few months ago. I contacted the conference organization trying to make a special interview with Professor Ho. As a result, I met the world-famous Chinese scientist David Ho who invented AIDS cocktail therapy at the first time in the VIP room of the Shanghai International Convention Center.
Cocktail therapy: it is only a won battle
On preparation for this interview, I searched all of his reports in Chinese and foreign media over the past two decades, such as RTHK’s TV series “Success Stories“, Time magazine cover story in 1996, CCTV celebrity interview, as well as Phoenix Satellite TV Century Forum, etc.
Ho was regarded as a real hero in retrieving the hopeless situation when human fighting against AIDS by the media in these reports. In addition to the cocktail therapy and AIDS, how can our news report present the readers another aspect of Ho?
When sitting front of me, Ho was sagacious, elegant, and clean, always kept a smile during the whole interview process, as same as seen in the documentary film. Only his temples are a little more grizzled than a few years ago, as Ho is a nearly 60-year-old, and is still working more than 10 hours each day.
When he saw two accompanying translation experts in the VIP room, Ho said to me: “It’s no problem for me to understand Chinese, you can just ask me questions in Chinese.”
So I asked him the first question: “Professor Ho, how do you think the media reported about you and your achievements, do you think they are the truth?”
Cocktail therapy was successfully developed and used 16 years ago. Ho is one of the scientists in the world who first recognized AIDS is caused by virus, and the AIDS diversity is caused by the replication of the AIDS virus. Based on these knowledge and understanding, Ho and his colleagues were devoting to develop a combination anti-viral therapy, i.e. cocktail therapy. Ho has been going on the forefront of AIDS research for the past 26 years. The AIDS mortality rate has been decreased by 60 percent in the developed countries since the introduction of cocktail therapy, and the international community has taken measures to provide this therapy for the millions of AIDS patients in the developing countries.
Ho was selected as “Person of the Year” in 1996 by the U.S. “Time” magazine, and followed by a variety of honors. Being pushed to the public forefront by these honors, Ho was also placed in a barochamber. A lot of people think that AIDS is overcome with the invention of cocktail therapy, “but in fact, we just win a battle.” Ho said.
By facing the obtained achievements in the past and himself under the media photoflash lamp, Ho said: “Some reports are true, some are from reasonable guess. This is the media, either dwell too much or trying to play down, isn’t it?” He asked me in his reply.
“Although my work has been well-known to the professional field, the praises from “Times“, “Wall Street Journal” and other mainstay media had pushed me to another platform, resulting more public attaining the knowledge of AIDS prevention and treatment. I am grateful for this recognition and the people pay attention to me.”
AIDS vaccine: a breakthrough may be achieved tomorrow or many years later
Several years after obtained the achievements, Ho and his Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center suffered many frustrations, fallen into the scientific ebb and lack of research direction, which is totally different from the situation when obtained the scientific glory due to cocktail therapy. These challenges made some people concerned about the future of the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center: Whether this center and its golden leader was already closed to a new major breakthrough, or remained stagnant in this protracted warfare in the fighting against AIDS?
To completely overcome AIDS, Ho has to develop an AIDS vaccine, which is exactly his focus of work in the period. Ho said: “Extremely arduous works in the development of AIDS vaccine gave us a great challenge we have never met. We have to wait for a scientific breakthrough, which may be occurred at tomorrow, or many years later.”
Ho’s research team has developed two deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) vaccines for the prevention of AIDS recently. Phase I clinical trials in human of the two vaccines were started in the United States. However, it will take at least five years before the vaccines introduced into the market. Ho said that his research center has been cooperating with Chinese research institutions, such as Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences. Human trials of AIDS vaccines may be carried out in China in the future.
Ho has traveled between China and the United States many times since the last 20 years. As a scientist, Ho’s activity space is not only limited to the laboratories, but also expanded his AIDS research and prevention & treatment works to all over the world, especially in China.
Ho said that many scientists introduced the cocktail therapy to the serious AIDS epidemic regions like Africa, Thailand and other countries after the invention of the cocktail therapy. “My background naturally leads me to China.” David Ho was born in November 1952, Taichung City, Taiwan Province, then he immigrated to the United States with his family when he was 12-year-old. In his view, to come out from China, then return back to China, it is a very meaningful cycle.
When talking about vaccines, Ho talked off the reel. I was excited when Ho told me that he would introduce the latest progressions for AIDS vaccine research of his team to all the audiences in the conferences. He has started a new journey of human fighting against AIDS after the disputed cocktail therapy has left him away gradually.
“In the next 20 years, you will be 80 years old. Will you still work in the area?” I asked.
“It should be, I am optimistic by nature, otherwise I cannot to do the research work in the AIDS field.” Ho said.
Q: How is the status of the research and development in your AIDS vaccine project?
Ho: We have a new HIV prevention project, which is a passive immunization method by using antibodies to block HIV infection. A lot of research works should be developed, in which one study is to promote a proof-of-concept test, aiming to show that this antibody will have better effect pharmacokinetic and pharmacokinetic in its anti-HIV activity.
We have conducted phase I clinical trials in the U.S., and we’ll conduct Phase IIa clinical trials in the U.S. We plan to conduct a pivotal study, a Phase IIb clinical trial, in China in the next two years. There are many reasons to carry out these studies in China, for example, China has a large number of high-risk population; many scientists and research institutions are interested to participate in the studies; Ministry of Science and Technology and Ministry of Health are eagerly to participate in the innovative researches now. Due to it is a very new path, the process is not easy which will probably cost about two years.
Q: Which procedures should be modified after Phase IIb clinical trials enrolled Chinese subjects?
Ho: I hope that China will be included in the study of the next Phase IIb clinical trial. However, it will be very difficult to carry out if there are many operation standards for the study.
I do not think that Western standards are golden standards. However, we should coordinate with each other and establish a mode, which is not only suitable for the Western scientists and Western pharmaceutical companies. If the Chinese scientists want to participate the competition with the world, we should recognize what is the path as a whole.
It is like a time-consuming malathione to carry out Phase IIb trial in China which required the long-term efforts. We will discuss with many relevant officials in China, including the Ministry of Science and Technology, AIDS Fund, and the Ministry of Health. Both the Ministry of Science and Technology and the Ministry of Health have agreed to give us support. In addition, we need to contact with the SFDA, which is the last unit.
Q: Do you have the shortage of research funds ?
Ho: Yes, very often. Sometimes I feel like running on a treadmill without stop, if I relax in a while, the rotation of the roller will slow down. Due to the current economic situation in the United States makes the Government cuts a large number of research funds, whereas it is better in China. As a foreign scientist, I can’t make a direct application for funding from the Ministry of Science and Technology or the Ministry of Health in China. However, the establishment of a research institute in School of Medicine, Tsinghua University could be a base for funding application. As this study is a multinational trial, we will make full use of the international funds system to carry out this cooperative research.
Q: There are nearly 1/3 of the researchers from Asia, especially from China, in Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center. However, more and more Chinese scholars have returned to China to do research, how do you evaluate the overall domestic academic environment?
Ho: The scientists went out from our research center have brought the latest achievements of the AIDS prevention and treatment to all over the world, including China. I am very pleased to see that the responsible scientist of the AIDS research organizations like the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Tsinghua University, the University of Hong Kong, and other institutes, are my students.
There are a lot of very good talents in China. If you visit the laboratories in the Western countries, you will find a lot of Chinese people working there. Many Chinese professionals take the new techniques and new thinking back to China, so the gap between Western scientists and Chinese scientists is narrowing constantly.
The Chinese government’s investment is growing, which really attracts scientists to come back to China for working, or for the establishment of a cooperative research. Chinese government leadership is also very far-sighted, and they hope that China will become a powerful country in research and development, so that more investments will be made. Certainly, it will need to take sufficient time to change the deep-rooted culture in China.
Q: As a team leader, how do you treat the failures and successes of scientific research?
Ho: If you never fail, you will not be successful; if you do not want to fail, you will be only a mediocrity. This is the prominent in the United States value system, which is different from the oriental culture. Failed and then make correction, the scientific progress is a self-correcting process in a great extent.