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Forgotten Czechs: Antonín Holý

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The Egyptians believed that you die twice. Once when they bury you in the grave, and the second time is the last time somebody mentions your name.

I chose professor Holý as my first forgotten Czech, since I believe the amount of people whose lives were drastically changed by his contributions is astronomical, yet very few Czechs actually know his story or even just his name. Professor Antonín Holý was one of the key contributors to giving humanity a chance to fight against viruses which we cannot be vaccinated against. For example, one of his greatest inventions was a drug that effectively fought the HIV virus, which causes the disease we know as AIDS. This drug is still made using his licence under the name Viread.

He was born in 1936 in the cultural hub that Prague was before the war. However he only lived through a couple of years of freedom, as the war struck exactly on his 3rd birthday and communists took over the government soon after he progressed from elementary school. Despite such challenges in his youth, he managed to successfully study Chemistry at the Faculty of Science at the Charles University in Prague from 1954 to 1959. He continued in this academic journey at the Institute of Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences, where he first trained, then researched, and finally became one of the lead scientist in just a total of 7 years. He then proceeded to lead the Institute’s working group for nucleic acids, which soon became a whole department, which he also lead. He finished his climb through the academic ranks in 1994, when he became the head of the whole institute.

However, he was not only active in the Czech Republic, but also internationally. At the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium, he collaborated with Erik De Clerq. De Clerq helped Holý focus his Chemistry skills on the development of drugs, which would soon help millions of people fight various viruses, from shingles and smallpox to HIV. These drugs mainly fought viruses by inhibiting their ability to replicate through synthetically mimicking RNA and DNA building blocks. Most of his inventions were made into functional drugs by others, but his discoveries were key, and many antiviral drug treatments approved in the early 2000’s were only possible thanks to him. This is clearly supported by the fact that many drug companies still pay money for Holý’s inventions to the Institute of Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry of the Czech Academy of Sciences, after he dedicated all future payments to it after his death. This money makes up much of the institutes’ budget to this day.

During his career, he also earned a lot of accolades and awards, including the Descartes Prize of the European Union, or a Honorary Professorship at the School of Chemistry, University of Manchester. The only award he never reached was the Nobel prize. However all the money he provided for Czech education will surely have more importance for the future of the Czech Republic than just one prize. He was a humble man, who dedicated much of his time to his work, and his death in July 2012 was an immense loss according to the IOCB.

Please, do not let him be forgotten.

Daniel Howard

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