Groundbreaking chemist Antonín Holý dies at 75

Antonín Holý, photo: ČTK

As is often the case in science, you may not know the name of the Dr. Antonín Holý even if your life depends on it. The work of the acclaimed Czech chemist has extended or improved the lives of millions suffering from HIV/AIDS, hepatitis B and many other viral diseases. His theoretical work on the genetic code in the 1960s preceded any practical application by decades. And his meticulous and principled approach to scientific processes, and more than 400 discoveries, made him a role model for many and one of the most outstanding modern Czech scientists. The 75-year-old Dr Holý died on Monday after a prolonged illness, just two months after the US Food and Drugs Administration approved a major new drug combination, Truvada, for the treatment of HIV. Earlier today, Radio Prague spoke with the former chairman of the Czech Academy of Sciences and biochemist Václav Pačes, who first met Antonín Holý in 1965.

Antonín Holý,  photo: ČTK
“First of all, he was an exceptionally hard-working scientist. He devoted 100% of his time to chemistry, that’s one thing. But at the same time, he was lucky to find good collaborators. His prime collaborator was Professor Erik De Clercq from Belgium, who had very good tests for testing various kinds of chemical compounds in biological activities. They began collaborating, with Antonín Holý synthesizing compounds and Erik De Clercq testing them for various kinds of biological activities, namely viral activities, and through this ping-pong system they eventually found these unique compounds that had effects on viruses. And they patented this.

“They wanted to get it to the patients of course, but as you know, it costs a tremendous amount of money to get a compound drug to patients. So they got together with Dr. Michael Riordan, who had founded the company Gilead Sciences in California, and these three then started to - slowly but very efficiently – push all these compounds on to the market. And today, they are saving the lives of millions of people.

Aside from being a hard worker who, as you said, devoted himself wholly to science, what kind of a man was he?

Antonín Holý,  photo: ISIFA/ Lidové noviny
“He was ambitious, of course. When he had some results he wanted to be credited for them, which I think is human nature and the nature of scientists in particular. He was very modest. Particularly in that he never, ever went to the public with his results before they had been peer-reviewed in the editorial boards of journals and so-forth. Sometimes scientists go to the public before they are 100% sure of their results, which is not good. And I think Antonín Holý was an example of someone who never did this. He only went to the public after his results were confirmed and published and peer reviewed. I think it is another important characteristic of Antonín Holý.”