Creating the Cure and the Quest to Eliminate HIV/Aids: Dr. David Ho






If you were old enough to watch American television in the early 1980s, you probably remember reports of a new “gay plague,” a mysterious disease with no name and no known cure. Thirty years later, misconceptions around HIV/AIDS have dissipated to an extent, an international culture

of awareness has developed and advanced by the high-profile afflicted living productive lives— Magic Johnson, for instance.

“He is the poster child for what therapy can do,” observes Dr. David Ho, director of the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center

and the man who championed combination anti-retroviral treat- ment, which remains the singular scientific breakthrough in the fight against the disease. Dr. Ho, who diagnosed and continues to treat the former basketball star, is quick to point out that “there are about 35 million living with HIV/ AIDS, and every year we have three million more infected … the challenge is not over.”

Born in Taiwan, Dr. Ho emigrated to the United States with his fam- ily at the age of twelve. He spent his school years in Los Angeles, learning English quickly and excelling at science and math.

He went to Harvard Medical School and later returned to the City of Angels for his residency at Cedars Sinai Medical Center. “It was in L.A. in 1981 that I first encountered the very earliest cases of AIDS,” he recalls from his offices on the East Side of Manhattan, “and I’ve been work- ing on that ever since.”

“I think the first major break- through came in the 1990s,” recalls the doctor, who was recognized in 1996 as the
Times Person of the Year for his pioneering work in HIV/ AIDS research and treatment. Since 1996, AIDS mortality rates have declined sixfold in devel- oped countries, although Dr.

Ho makes sure to point out that “this epidemic has already killed 25 million people … it’s still the number-one killer worldwide.”

Dr. Ho achieved his breakthrough in part by bringing a creative mind to his scientific approach.
“It turned out in the early ’90s that some of the older concep- tions of what HIV was doing were wrong,” he observes. “I started to apply some of my mathematical background, taking that set of knowledge and applying it to HIV.”

By looking at the virus “quanti- tatively,” the medical wizard and his team developed a multi-drug treatment that attacks the fast- replicating virus on a number of fronts, thereby suppressing the virus’ mutation and reproduc- tion. “I think our job is to imagine something and to then put it into practice if we can,” he observes, briefly uncovering a white chalk- board covered in intricate sym- bols and formulas. “We sit here, and we imagine the possibilities.”

“There are huge challenges all around us,” he continues. A living historian of the disease, the vet- eran of medicine has witnessed the ascent of HIV in the U.S. and worldwide. In China, where Dr. Ho is an honorary professor at several universities, he has witnessed the emergence of AIDS as a national epidemic ap- proximately one decade later than in the U.S.. “Yet the parallels are clearly there,” he relates. “People in China have treated the AIDS patients poorly … patients have been ostracized without a full understanding that this disease cannot be casually transmitted… and, to this day, we still have discrimination in both places, no question about it.”

Earlier this year, Dr. Ho and his team were reported to be work- ing on an HIV antibody strategy that some hope could pave the way for the development of an effective way to prevent HIV infection. Yet the doc remains closed-lipped on the matter. “The development of a cure is still a major research focus,” he states. “But we all know how difficult that will be.”

For him, keeping the struggle against the disease in the spot- light is paramount. “I think it’s important to keep some focus on this disease,” he points out. “All of us have become a bit complacent about it, yet it’s a hugely impor- tant disease for the world.”

Twenty-nine years into the fight, he remains realistically optimistic about the chances for a cure. “I hope I live to the day when we begin to turn the corner against this virus,” he concludes. “But right now, in spite of all the ad- vances, we’re still losing.”