David Ho: HIV Researcher

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Since arriving in America from Taiwan at the age of 12, Dr. David Ho has become a world-renowned scientist. His research in the fight against HIV/AIDS earned him honors. In this program, Bill Moyers talks with Dr. Ho about his experience as an immigrant and US citizen, and his contributions to the battle against AIDS.


BILL MOYERS: Few people had heard of David Ho in the mid nineties. That changed overnight when the young medical researcher made a stunning discovery. He found that HIV – the virus that causes AIDS – reproduced ferociously in the very early period of infection, not in the late stages as had been thought. Not only did Dr. Ho quantify that explosive growth, he and his team came up with what’s known as ‘The Combination Therapy’—a drug cocktail that comers the virus and-slows the mutation. The therapy opened a new front in the battle against a worldwide epidemic. And David Ho became Time magazine’s man of the year.

I spoke with David Ho recently and asked him how he first met up with AIDS.

DAVID HO: Well, I — I had finished my medical school and was in the process of finishing up my training in internal medicine in Los Angeles in 1980-81. And I had taken on an extra year to be the chief medical resident.

And it was during that period when — a few gay men were coming in to the hospital with a multitude of infections. And these are not usual infections in the sense that these are infections that are only seen in immunal compromised individuals.

And yet these previously healthy young men were coming down with the same suggesting that the immune system was destroyed by something. Of course we did not know by what. An… and that was a great mystery. And for me I just jumped on that because it fascinated me. It was – it was clear to me then even as a young physician that we were facing something new.

BILL MOYERS: What research were you conducting at the moment and what was your particular discovery?

DAVID HO: I think our biggest contribution to the field, the one I feel most proud about is the fact that we showed the world whatever HIV is doing in the body of an infected person.

The other thing is the ramification of this discovery. We could actually quantify how fast the virus replicates and to what level. And—and knowing that when every time HIV replicates it makes mistakes, it makes mutations. The strategy to go with is to comer the virus, to force the vims to make multiple mutations to evade multiple drugs at a given time. And when you crunch the numbers you realize it becomes increasingly difficult for HIV to do so if you put on three or four drugs at the same time. And in fact we then took this — implication and tested it in patients. And by mid 1996 we had a bunch of patients whose virus were controlled to an undetectable level using such a strategy.

BILL MOYERS: Tell me something about the extent of the epidemic of HIV that the world is facing in the 21st century.

DAVID HO: Well, cumulatively HIV has already infected over 60 million individuals worldwide. Killing approximately 20-plus million. And leaving about 42 million living with viral infection. This epidemic is still spreading at an alarming rate both in the US and — and more significantly in — in developing countries throughout the world.

BILL MOYERS: Is there any hope for a continent like Africa where it appears to be ravaging out of control?

DAVID HO: There’s hope that we ultimately could come up with — with a vaccine to halt the spread of this infection in sub-Saharan Africa. But that’s not an easy task and it’s some years away. So for the foreseeable future there’s no question Africa will be devastated by this epidemic and perhaps a whole generation could be lost to the epidemic.

BILL MOYERS: Is it a stretch to say that this is comparable to the black plague that swept across Europe?

DAVID HO: I think there’s no doubt that HIV epidemic is the plague of our millennium. And projections suggest that over the coming decade in India and China we could have perhaps 40 million infections by 2010.

BILL MOYERS: Give me a sense of the research you’re doing right now. What are you working on?

DAVID HO: The major project that I’m focused on is to develop HIV vaccine to prevent the further spread of HIV. That vaccine research has to be the most important thing we do today.

BILL MOYERS: Are you doing any work in — in the country of your origin, your roots?

DAVID HO: Oh, absolutely. For several years we’ve been working on the ground trying to take our vaccine effort over there to do a collaborative — collaboratively with the Chinese scientists. But importantly we were tested in the field in China, and so we’ve been training people, building infrastructure, laboratories and clinics.

And it’s very gratifying to be able to come to this country from Taiwan, acquire my expertise and now be able to take it back and- and have it be useful to the Chinese government.

BILL MOYERS: When did you know you were gonna be a scientist?

DAVID HO: In the late ’50s, so I would have been just, you know, eight, nine years old, two physicists from China, Yong and Lee, won the Nobel Prize. And that was such a big development that they were glorified, they were deified.

BILL MOYERS: That was big news.

DAVID HO: All the kids were told this is, you know, what you ought to follow. And so science became a big part o f what I was thinking about from then on.

BILL MOYERS: You said your father left Taiwan while you were still very young.

DAVID HO: He left in 1957 and leaving behind my mother, myself and a younger brother. And we did not see him until 1965 when the three of us came over.

And he did it that way because he wanted to finish school, establish himself and become stable before moving us over. And as I had gotten older I truly appreciate the — the effort he made, particularly during that juncture.

Just as an example he had one job he tells — he tell us frequently (LAUGHTER) that while going to school he had to put very simply eggs into cartons. You know these cartons. And before they’re packaged.

And for other people the — the white workers were bigger, they had hands that were substantially bigger. My father is a small man with very small hands. And he could not keep up because he could only put not more than two eggs in his hands. And he talked about doing that for hours and falling behind other workers because he was not as well equipped to do so.

And to do that and have to study at the same time worrying about family and being so far away and not being able to see your sons and your wife that’s hardship enough.

BILL MOYERS: How did America appear to you as a 12-year-old?

DAVID HO: Well, it — it’s a different world. You know, you go from bicycles to cars. You go from shopping in the village market to supermarkets. And going from China— Chinese to English. We had absolutely no exposure to the language. We did not know the alphabet. So we started from- from step one. And after a year or two I think we were pretty fluent.

BILL MOYERS: You learned English swiftly but how were you and regular classes, how did you learn math and social sciences and the other courses we expect of students in school?

DAVID HO: I got pretty good grades in math even from the very beginning. But the- some of the other classes and — you know, until the English proficiency got to a certain level — it was — it was a struggle. And it was tough in the sense that in Taiwan I had been a pretty good student and then all of a sudden — one can’t communicate. I couldn’t communicate and therefore was generally viewed by others as someone who’s not very good or the dummy in the class — particularly, you know — you know, kids could be cruel at times. And so— that initial period- changed me a great deal because I was a fairly active, outgoing child in Taiwan and… After arriving here, I became pretty much an introvert for a number of years. And- and gradually— came back in the years following.

BILL MOYERS: Tell me your Chinese name and what it means.

DAVID HO: My Chinese name is Ho Da Yi. Ho is the surname. Da means big and Yi means one. And so simply put it’s the big one. But my father would like to say he chose the name because it — it means the great one. (LAUGHTER) Now my — my friends and my relatives used to kid me because Da Yi is written with essentially four strokes. As easy as it could be in Chinese. And I thought — they told me that my father chose that name because he was afraid I wouldn’t be able to write. (LAUGHTER)

BILL MOYERS: What did he think when your face was there on the cover of Time Magazine!

DAVID HO: Well, you know, for— for parents it’s probably the greatest thing since sliced bread. And, you know, I — now that I’m a parent I feel that way about any accomplishment by one of my kids.

BILL MOYERS: I’d like to think that when your father saw that you were on the cover of TIME magazine he thought, “I named him appropriately. He’s fulfilled my expectations.”

DAVID HO: Well, I’m sure he said that too, (LAUGHTER) Proudly to his friends, but he did not express that to me. He’s not the kind who would — who would hug you and kiss you but, you know, the typical stem Chinese father figure. But you could tell he — you know, there was a great deal of joy — in — in his heart at that crucial moment.

BILL MOYERS: Thank you very much, David Ho.

DAVID HO: Thank you.

This transcript was entered on April 1, 2015.

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