Antonín Holý: one of the country's most renowned scientists

Antonín Holý, photo: CTK

Antonín Holý is one of the Czech Republic’s most renowned scientists. Most recently, his name was put forward by the Czech Academy of Sciences to be nominated for the Nobel Prize in medicine for his work finding compounds to fight both the AIDS virus and cancer. Learn more in Czechs Today.

Antonín Holý, photo: CTK
Antonín Holý was born in Prague in 1936. As a small boy, Holý recalls that along with a friend he found a dusty old book in a loft. The book had beautiful illustrations and covered both biology and physics. According to Holý, the two boys were mesmerised - his friend ultimately chose to work in physics while Holý decided to take an interest in chemistry.

In the emerging communist climate of Czechoslovakia, Holý resisted official efforts to have him become a coal miner – apparently that was a task to which the teachers had decided young Antonín was suited. Eventually, in 1954 Holý entered the mathematical-physical institute at Charles University – at this time, chemistry was a part of this department. After serving his conscript duty in the army, Holý finished his studies in 1959. From 1960-63, he worked in the organic chemistry department of the Czech Academy of Sciences – and it is here that Holý has focused his work in the ensuing decades. Purely by chance, Holý began to look at the blood disease leukaemia and while meeting bald-headed sufferers of the disease at a children’s hospital, the meeting had a profound effect on the young scientist. And from there, Holý expanded his work.

Václav Pačes
Václav Pačes is the head of the Czech Academy of Sciences and has shared a long professional relationship with Antonín - or Tony as he calls him – Holý. I spoke to Mr Pačes and began by asking him for his early recollections of the man:

“I first met him in 1965 when I started my PhD studies at the Institute of Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry at the Academy of Sciences. And at that time, Tony Holý was a young but already excellent scientist and what is important is that he was already working with the building-blocks of nucleic acids of DNA and RNA. And he studied the chemistry of these compounds and their reactions – and that was fundamental research, you know. I think it is very important to realise.”

And that work soon yielded some notable results:

“Through the many, many years of fundamental research that he undertook, he eventually came to recognise the potential of these compounds for mankind and the general health of all people.”

Yet, much of Holý’s career was played out against the backdrop of the totalitarian communist state. But Václav Pačes believes that the science academy had it lucky compared to many other institutions:

“You know, the Academy of Sciences was actually an institution where contacts with the global scientific community were relatively easy. Because the academy didn’t teach students it was not as closely monitored as universities were, for instance. So we had all the literature; we could travel – although that was very limited, but we could. Still, there was a tough communist regime in place - although during the second half of the Sixties, it was a little more relaxed and I know that many colleagues could travel relatively easily.”

The communist system led to some very notable inventions – such as Czech inventor Otto Wichterle’s contact lenses – from being sold on the cheap, rather than negotiating potentially lucrative licensing deals. But, Václav Pačes believes that his colleague was wary of these pitfalls:

“He’s had a very fruitful career. You know, he is a very hard working man; he is a chemist that has spent most of his life in the lab; he works himself rather than being a boss sitting at a desk, and he was also very clever at patenting things and looking at getting a fair share for the licensees. So I think he is not just a good scientist but a good businessman too.”

Erik de Clercq with Antonín Holý, photo: CTK
The relative freedom to participate in the global scientific community also led Antonín Holý to develop a life-long working relationship with the scientist Erik de Clercq in Belgium. Václav Pačes explains:

“He was very lucky because he met Erik de Clercq of the Catholic University in Leuven in Belgium who had – and he still has – a very thorough and elaborate system of biological tests and he tested hundreds of compounds not only from Holý’s lab, but from all over the world. And so Tony Holý was sending him these compounds and eventually he discovered these very active anti-viral statics.”

Antonín Holý, photo: CTK
One such example are so-called “Acyclic nucleoside phosphonates” – a completely new kind of antiretroviral drug. In fact, during his long and esteemed career, Antonín Holý has discovered numerous compounds leading to the development of drugs to treat a wide number of diseases. For example, Viread, an anti-retroviral drug used in the treatment of AIDS, or Hepsera a so-called reverse transcriptase inhibitor – an unsuccessful HIV treatment now used to fight Hepatitis B or Vistide to treat retinal complications in AIDS patients. These drugs have been part of an ongoing collaboration for Holý which started in 1991 with the Californian pharmaceutical firm Gilead Sciences. In all, the scientist has co-authored around 650 scientific studies, written several books and holds 60 patents on his discoveries.

Not long ago, the news emerged that the Czech Academy of Sciences intends to nominate Antonín Holý for the Nobel Prize in medicine. Since then, the Czech media has been creating something of a storm, much to the chagrin of the Academy’s head. Václav Pačes explains:

Antonín Holý
“Well, frankly speaking, I am unhappy about all this. It has been put about in the media but these things should not be done this way. It is not secret of course, but I don’t want to comment on this anymore as these things are usually done not that openly and in some degree confidentially.”

A recent accident in which Holý was hit by a car has left the renowned scientist somewhat shaken and a little frailer. But, that said, Antonín Holý can still be found in his lab in Prague, working as hard as ever, ready to turn the next new compound into the next new lifesaving cure.