Sat, Mar 31, 2007 - Page 4 News List

AIDS expert touts biotech as the future

EMBRACE BIOTECH The inventor of the drug cocktail treatment for HIV said that the nation should use its skills in innovation to capitalize on this emerging sector

By Angelica Oung  /  STAFF REPORTER

David Ho, a leader in the fight against AIDS, gives a speech to mark the 10th anniversary of the use of Highly Active Anti-Retroviral Therapy (HAART) in Taiwan.

PHOTO: WANG YI-SUNG, TAIPEI TIMES

Staff Reporter

The country needs to embrace the burgeoning field of bio technology in the way it embraced information technology, said David Ho(何大一), the man behind the drug "cocktail" approach to HIV treatment.

Speaking at a celebration of 10 years of Highly Active Anti-Retroviral Therapy (HAART) use in Taiwan, Ho told the audience that Taiwan has what it takes to be an "innovation-based society" but needs to focus on encouraging development and stemming brain-drain.

Taiwan introduced HAART or "cocktail" treatment in 1997 after hard lobbying by then Department of Health head Chang Po-ya (張博雅) for funding from the Executive Yuan.

Before the new treatment arrived, being diagnosed as HIV positive was considered a death sentence, said Wu Shiow-ing (吳秀英), Bureau of Health Promotion deputy director general.

"We used to hear about patients killing themselves after learning that they had HIV," Wu said. "Such incidents are much rarer since cocktail treatment was introduced because people now have hope."

Some of the patients who received the first batch of pills that department employees worked overtime to divvy up and send to hospitals are still alive, she added.

Ho, a Taiwanese-American, was chosen as Time magazine's man of the year in 1996. He now conducts research in the US and Taiwan.

"Taiwan must do more to develop industries of the future," Ho said. "So far, Taiwan has done a fabulous job developing its IT sector, but so far it seems to have missed out on biotech."

"There is no doubt in my mind that Taiwan has the capability to do the kind of clinical trials [required for further research into HIV]," said Ho, citing Taiwan's "remarkable" work with hepatitis B in support of his statement.

Ho is currently working on vaccines for HIV and several influenza viruses.

"We have entered stage two trials for our HIV vaccines," he said. "Tests show that with three doses of the vaccine, 90 percent of participants display a response."

However, whether or not the immune system response means that the participants have developed protection against HIV is still unknown, said Ho.

"The vaccine will not be ready in the near future," said Ho.

Ho said that Taiwan's isolation from the international health community makes internal biomedical development even more important.

"Of course, it is very harmful that Taiwan is not a part of the WHO," he said. "We are denied access to a lot of information. We have to make up for that by being more independent."

"Ultimately, however, the WHO does not hold the solution to the problems of the world," Ho said. "That is up to research done in individual countries."

The non-profit Taiwan AIDS Foundation, however, yesterday criticized the government, claiming that the number of people contracting AIDS in Taiwan has not decreased despite use of Ho's therapy treatment.

Foundation Chairman Twu Shiing-jer (涂醒哲), a former minister of health, said at a separate news conference that the foundation had found that the government was implementing a "biased" anti-AIDS policy -- concentrating most resources in medical treatment and checks.

Twu blamed the situation on the fact that some people wrongly believed that the cocktail therapy can cure the disease after it proved successful in prolonging the lives of AIDS patients.

Shi said the therapy allows AIDS patients to lead a normal life by reducing the HIV virus load in their bodies. However, with more and more AIDS patients needing the treatment, the department has been forced to spend more money on providing the cocktail and conducting medical examinations.

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