Former MIT Frosh Wins Time HonorBy Jean K. Lee
Associate News Editor
"It has been a long, arduous road," said David Da-i Ho, Time magazine's 1996 Man of the Year.
A veteran of AIDS epidemic research, Ho has come up with a combination drug treatment that slashes the virus that ultimately causes AIDS.
Ho is not a stranger to MIT. He attended MIT for a year as an undergraduate and spent a great deal of time taking classes in the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology program during his years at Harvard Medical School as well. In addition, Ho worked at Professor Emeritus of Biology Herman N. Eisen's laboratory during one summer. "I loved my days at MIT," he said.
After spending a year as a freshman at the Institute in 1970, Ho transferred to the California Institute of Technology. "I opted for a more intimate setting closer to home," Ho said, "There were a number of physicists at Caltech that I have always admired."
Although Ho always had been interested in mathematics and the sciences ever since his was a child, his pursuit of AIDS research began gradually, especially while he served as chief medical resident at Cedars Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles. There, he witnessed some of the earliest cases of AIDS.
"My initial love was in physics, but with time I became fascinated with new biology of the 1970s," Ho said. "What began as a medical curiosity became a public health problem of global proportions."
Ho has developed a strategy of attacking HIV early, usually in the first few weeks of infection, by treating AIDS patients with new drugs called protease inhibitors in combination with standard anti-viral medications. According to Time, the level of HIV in Ho's patients' blood has already dwindled, and there is a good chance that the virus could be eliminated completely within a few years.
Despite the striking advances made thus far, Ho pointed out that "we have only taken a step forward," and much work remains to be explored.
"AIDS is far from over," he said. "I am anxious because our work is not done. No patient has been cured."
Focus shifts from cure to vaccine
For more than a decade, Ho has embarked on AIDS research, particularly with the early stages of HIV infection and the immune system response. He has helped to reveal what seemed to be an insurmountable epidemic until recently.
Currently the director of the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center in New York City, Ho plans to keep working toward controlling the virus better with the use of anti-retroviral agents in the hope of finding a cure. He said that his team will focus more on vaccine development in the future.
Despite the honor of being named the Time Man of the Year, Ho feels that the attention he has been receiving from the media and the public has brought further anxiety and responsibility. "It is difficult to work while the media spotlight is shining on you," he said.
Ho added that the honor is not only a recognition of his personal efforts but a "symbol for the advances made by the entire AIDS research community."
One of the main dilemmas of this new combination-drug therapy is its expensive cost, which according to Ho, less than five percent of the affected population can actually afford, making a preventative vaccine possibly a more reasonable solution to the AIDS epidemic.
Recently, Institute Professor David Baltimore '61, who won a Nobel Prize for his pioneering AIDS research work, has agreed to lead the national AIDS vaccine research effort. "We expect a great deal will come out of his able leadership," Ho said.