AIDS Researcher Speaks At Eliot House Banquet

Excitement and admiration overflowed last night as students took their seats at an Eliot House banquet featuring Dr. David Ho, one of the most renowned AIDS researchers in the country.

Ho, Time Magazine's 1996 Man of the Year and director of the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center in New York, spoke to Harvard students and scientists about his revolutionary research into potential cures for the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which causes AIDS.

"Despite the breakneck speed of scientific discoveries in the field, AIDS patients already faced a decade and a half of horror and disappointment. But, because of science, there is now hope," Ho said.

"In the past two years, with new knowledge and new therapies, it has become possible to control HIV so effectively that the virus is no longer detectable in the blood of the infected person," he added.

Ho and his team of researchers can claim responsibility for discovering potential drug combinations that they believe may cure AIDS victims. Their discoveries have sparked new hope among AIDS sufferers, but critics have charged that drugs are unlikely ever entirely to eradicate AIDS.

Through research, Ho's researchers found that HIV protease inhibitors stopped the propagation of the virus. They then combined anti-viral drugs already in use with the protease inhibitors and administered these "cocktails," as they are commonly called, to HIV-infected patients.

"Unmatched were the joy and amazement as we watched the level of HIV fall, ever so dramatically," Ho said. "At first, little did we know that we were sitting on top of a fundamental discovery in AIDS research."

"Although a cure is still not in hand, the fear that the AIDS virus might be invincible has finally been subdued," Ho added.

In 1981, Ho said, he first faced the AIDS epidemic unexpectedly as chief resident at the University of California at Los Angeles Medical School.

"A gay man came into the hospital with a multitude of infections," Ho said in an interview. "I followed that case and subsequent ones with a great deal of interest."

With enthusiasm visible on his face, Ho described science's breathless search to determine the cause of this "new disease."

"Nothing is more thrilling to me than the process of scientific discovery," Ho said. "To the undergraduates, be prepared to take advantage of the opportunities that are bubbled up by serendipity."

Ho said that at the early stages of the research into the virus he believed many doctors felt fear in dealing with the unknown.

Now, he said, society has made great progress in learning to handle the emotional issues surrounding AIDS.

"That period of fear is over," Ho said in the interview. "In the beginning every case is so emotionally charged...it's a lot easier to take care of patients these days than a decade ago."

Although he said that the press has contributed to increasing public awareness of the seriousness of AIDS, Ho said that being in the public eye has changed his life and has made his work more difficult at times.

"I find the media spotlight is hot enough to bake," Ho said in the interview.

Ho conveyed his message of hope to students in the audience.

"It was really impressive that he was so down-to-earth about the whole issue," said Amy Chen '01. "That in the face of all the obstacles he still has so much optimism and can convey that to an audience."

Ho said his faith in science is tempered by the bitter realities of the AIDS epidemic.

Ho estimated the daily spread of new HIV infections at 8,500. He said by the year 2000 scientists expect 50 million people to be infected with the virus.

"AIDS is not over," Ho said. "World-wide, most infected persons cannot access the promising new therapies, and much remains to be done in controlling the spread of this epidemic."

Ho called out to governments and individuals to provide citizens all over the world with access to treatment.

"Always maintain, unwaveringly, a deep commitment to excellence," Ho added.

Ho, who is Chinese-American, said his Asian heritage has positively contributed to his success over the years. Ho spoke directly to the many students of Asian descent in the audience.

The Harvard-Radcliffe Asian American Association (AAA) co-sponsored the event with the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations and Eliot House.

Ho attributed his success in science to his cultural background.

"Were it not for the profound Asian respect for intellectual and scholarly endeavors, a scientist I might not be today," Ho said.

He encouraged students never to abandon their heritage.

"By adopting the best of both cultures, Asian-Americans should begin to forge forward to assume leadership positions," Ho said.

Many Asian-American students said they saw him as a beacon of hope and inspiration for them.

"When we look at Ho we see an inspiration for children of immigrants," said Grace Y. Shieh '99, the co-president of AAA. "His place as an Asian-American role model is very important in our society."

--Long Cai and Annie Lee contributed to the reporting of this article.