In an honor that has never been bestowed upon a single scientist, Time magazine has named David Ho, head of New York City's Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center (ADARC), its Man of the Year. The magazine tapped the 44-year-old Ho, it explained, for "pioneering the treatment that might, just might, lead to a cure." But some AIDS researchers worry that the award may further divide a field known for its fierce competition and heated disputes.
> An accompanying profile muses over Ho's "genius." And there's no doubt that Ho and his co-workers at the 5-year-old ADARC had a banner year, publishing several high-impact papers in basic and clinical AIDS research. On the clinical side, they've been at the forefront of the studies that have shown that protease inhibitors, a new class of anti-HIV drugs, can drive blood HIV levels down to undetectable levels for more than a year in many patients, when used in combination with older drugs like AZT and 3TC. And the Ho lab has also performed pathbreaking studies on how quickly HIV replicates, how long it takes drugs to decimate the virus, and how HIV uses receptors for immune-system chemicals called chemokines to infect cells.
The Time package stresses that the strides AIDS researchers made in 1996 in treating HIV-infected people cannot fairly be credited to any single scientist or institution--a point Ho readily acknowledges. "Our accomplishments not only reflect the efforts of [ADARC], but also of many other outstanding scientists and institutions active in HIV/AIDS research," he said in a statement. Also, as Ho and Time emphasize, AIDS has not been cured, and many critical questions remain unanswered. For example, although adding proteases to the anti-HIV drug regimens has clearly led to marked improvements in many AIDS patients, the magnitude--and, critically, the duration--of these benefits is still up in the air.
Despite the disclaimers, some AIDS researchers worry that Ho will be perceived as having played a larger role in the fight against AIDS than any individual deserves. When asked his reaction to Time's choice, Duke University AIDS researcher Dani Bolognesi--who says he appreciates the value of Ho's work--is somewhat dumbfounded. "Wow, that's all I have to say, wow," says Bolognesi, who adds that he worries that singling out Ho could further polarize a fractious field. Just a few days before the award was announced, in fact, The Wall Street Journal ran a front-page story in which critics faulted Ho for what the Journal called his "propensity for publicity."
Still, as this is Time's first Man of the Year tribute to a scientist since 1960--when it featured 15 scientists from different disciplines in a package about the renaissance of scientific discovery--some AIDS researchers undoubtedly will see the credit being given to Ho the way Time intended it: as "an emblem of a key moment, picked to represent the best work of all the AIDS scientists."