Dr. David Ho Gives Updates on the Battle against HIV/AIDS

May 2011

Combination antiretroviral therapy, popularly known as cocktail therapy – the combination of drugs against HIV/AIDS, is improving, according to its inventor Dr. David Ho, who said there had been a lot of refinements over the last 15 years. The individual component drugs are much better with fewer side effects. And although the cost of cocktail therapy is expensive in places like Hong Kong and the US, the same therapy is probably 30 times cheaper in China, South Africa and Brazil. 'If you go for the generic versions of the drugs, it's already much cheaper. The actual cost is probably a few hundred dollars (US) per year.'

But he admitted that cocktail therapy cannot cure HIV/AIDS: 'I don't see an easy way to make a dramatic breakthrough, to go from controlling the virus using our drugs all the way to a cure. I don't see a clear path to a cure at this time.'

Dr. Ho explained, 'The fact that we have no vaccine for HIV today primarily relates to the finding that antibodies made by the B cells in our immune system have problems binding to the surface protein of HIV. It is because of the structural features of the HIV protein, which is very well protected by protein sequences and by a lot of sugars. So, the antibodies cannot bind to it very tightly.' He said that researchers still cannot figure out ways to overcome this problem. Although there is a lot of basic understanding of that difficulty from the recent research efforts, it will take some time to translate the new knowledge into development of a vaccine. And it won't be any time soon.

In the eyes of Dr. Ho, Hong Kong is a transparent and efficient city with great businesses and financial services. But to his chagrin, the whole community is so dominated by financial matters. He pointed out that Hong Kong's investment in research and development was less than a half of mainland China's in terms of percentage of GDP. 'That's not good when a particular rich region of China should in fact invest more. Hong Kong could be the New York equivalent. But New York has a great deal more besides finance and property. Creating new ideas, creating new products is as important as the business sector.'

Dr. Ho held the seminar 'Challenges of HIV/AIDS at the Bench, in the Clinic, and from the Field' on 28 April at CUHK. In his speech, he urged young scientists and medical students to 'follow your heart, follow your passion, don't be afraid to take risks'.