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The global health pioneer

Dr. William Haseltine is specifically renowned for his pioneering work on cancer, HIV/AIDS and genomics. Through all of his undertakings, he has always kept the ultimate goal of curing the world’s populations from diseases in mind.

Dr William A Haseltine, PhD, has had an active career in both science and business. He has worked as a Professor at Harvard Medical School and Harvard School of Public Health and has founded nine biotech companies, Human Genome Sciences probably being the most well-known. As a scientist he is specifically renowned for his pioneering work on cancer, HIV/AIDS and genomics. Through all of his undertakings he has always kept the ultimate goal of curing the world’s populations from diseases in mind.

William Haseltine was born into a scientific family; his grandfather was an engineer and his father a PhD physicist. His older sister Florence received a PhD in Biophysics from MIT and then an MD, his younger brother Eric has a PhD in Neurobiology, and his younger sister Susan became a specialist in computer systems. He was raised on a Naval Base, the Naval Ordinance Test Station at China Lake in the Mohave Desert of California, surrounded by weapons, scientists and engineers. But it was his early knowledge about the difficulties of diseases that led him to his chosen career path.
“When I was a young boy my mother was very ill with many different diseases. I was angered by these circumstances. I couldn’t bear to see that the people you love would get sick. So when I was eight or nine years old I fixed the goal that I would do what I could to help people that had been afflicted by diseases.”


Haseltine soon began his life-long relationship with science, as he became a pre-medical student at the University of California, majoring in chemistry. There he received his training in biomedical research and upon graduation he decided to learn as much as possible about how to create new ways to treat and cure diseases.
“I guess I always differed from most of my peers. My research was motivated to cure, and to find out more about the natural world, while the others perhaps did a lot of their work for the sake of science. That’s perfectly fine of course. I’m not judging whether it’s right or wrong. But what I can say about my journey is that a single goal has helped me move from institution to institution, which has helped me pick up different tools to better achieve success.”

In 1973, William Haseltine joined the laboratory of David Baltimore at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a post-doctoral fellow. There he began to work on the fundamental aspects of how a class of viruses (retroviruses), known to cause cancer in animals, reproduced themselves. His work, in collaboration with several other scientists, provided unexpected insights into the process of retrovirus replication. This work prepared him for research on human disease and retroviruses, both important later in his career. Later on, he took the step towards becoming a Professor at the Harvard Medical School Department of Pathology and shortly thereafter became Professor of the Cancer Biology Department of the Harvard School of Public Health. He has had a very productive career, founding the equivalent of two academic departments and has published more than two hundred research articles.
“I have been very fortunate in my scientific career. I have had the opportunities of receiving a lot of funding, for which I am most grateful. Also, Harvard is a marvelous place. It attracts the best minds from all over the world and lets you use and adapt different strategies.”

Retrovirus replication continued to be a focus area of his early research, which led to fundamental insights, including the “end to end jumping” of the initial copy of the retroviral genome. He then began to focus on two related issues; how retroviruses induce cancer in animals and whether or not retroviruses cause cancer and other diseases in humans. Among several findings, Haseltine and his laboratory discovered that the Human T-cell Leukemia Virus (HTLV) carried a novel gene, named the transactivator X (now called tax). Over the next few years Haseltine and his colleagues would go on to show that tax is the gene responsible for the cancers. The discoveries while working on HTLV also prepared Haseltine for his subsequent work on AIDS.

As a professor at Harvard Medical School from 1976 to 1993, Haseltine was part of a team at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute that led the race to discover how the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) compromises, and ultimately destroys, the human immune system. In early 1982 Haseltine and a few other scientists, including Max Essex and Robert Gallo who were working on HTLV, formed a small working group in order to identify the cause of the new disease. With help from James Curran of the Centers for Disease Control the group formed the hypothesis that AIDS was caused by a human retrovirus similar to HTLV. They proposed to use methods similar to those used to isolate the HTLV virus to find this new virus. The methods were successfully used both by the laboratory at NIH and by a Paris laboratory to isolate the virus, now called the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), and to demonstrate that it is the cause of AIDS.
“I saw that this was a huge medical problem that had no solution. I believed I had the skills to address it, since I had been getting extremely good training and had been teaching a course in biology and social issues.”

For the next ten years Haseltine put his efforts into finding ways to diagnose, treat and prevent HIV/AIDS. He became one of the first to recognize the danger this disease posed.
“The more it seemed that it was a virus that I understood, the more I realized that it was likely to become a global pandemic. I became aware that we needed to build the same type of institutions as were already established for the research of cancer, as well as foundations, communities, fundraising and most importantly to create awareness.”

Today HIV is one of the world’s leading infectious killers, claiming more than 25 million lives over the past three decades. According to WHO, the World Health Organization, in 2011 there were approximately 34.2 million people living with HIV. Over 60 percent of people living with HIV are in sub-Saharan Africa.
“If you look at AIDS on a global scale today the epidemic is still raging. More people are getting infected every year and in some countries the entire female population is affected. But the good news is that several years of funding have led to the possibility of treatment.”
“A huge part of the funding has in fact been provided through the United States. The former president, George Bush, for example created The President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. This is a 70 billion multi-year program to treat HIV/AIDS infection in Africa and the Caribbean and has been one of the most successful help programs of recent time.* Most people tend to forget about this, because during his presidency the media focused more on reporting on the war on terrorism, but his initiative has saved millions of lives.”

According to Haseltine, there have been very effective programs during recent years and some of the treatments against HIV have proven to be even more effective than anticipated.
“The pharmaceutical companies are continuing to do an excellent job and the current treatments are becoming available to more people. Researchers are also finding new ways to combine the drugs. However, what is urgently needed is of course a vaccine, which I would say is at least ten years away – maybe more. It might not sound like such a long time but by then I estimate that more than 15 million more people will have become infected.”
The next step is for the countries to find means of financing the treatments themselves.
“Many people doubted that the poorest people could ever be treated. But I have visited members of families that were on the treatment program who were living in places that could only be reached by motorcycle. If it is possible to help people, even in the most remote environments, then I don’t think it will be a problem for the countries to make sure that everyone gets the right treatment.”Besides his work as a professor and scientist, Haseltine has also had an active career in biotechnology. During recent years, he has founded several companies and has been an advisor to venture capital groups. In 1981 he founded Cambridge BioSciences and a decade later, in 1992, he founded Human Genome Sciences International, which was one of the first biopharmaceutical companies to patent human genomic sequences for medical use. Over the next several years Human Genome Sciences initiated clinical trials on several new drugs that were discovered using genomic methods. These include a new skin growth factor, Keratinocyte Growth Factor 2, for the treatment of diabetic ulcers, an induced mucositis cancer therapy, and Benlysta, the first new drug approved by the FDA for treatment of Lupus for more than 40 years.

Human Genome Sciences was sold in July 2012 to GlaxoSmithKline for USD 3.6 billion. Haseltine had already left the company in October 2004, however, to take up a career in philanthropy and to help reshape the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industry.
“The pharmaceutical industry is having some serious problems. Even if the rate of discovery has never been higher, the large companies are not properly structured to acquire this knowledge. They have become far too large at this stage. Also, the main objective has turned out to be the development of drugs for the markets, not for human needs.”
On the other hand, he says, there’s more money out there, better tools to do research, enormous amounts of money to develop drugs and more major research centers all over the world. With an increasingly aging population demanding better health, Haseltine sees potential in businesses focusing on providing care for the elderly – and for developing countries.
“The good news is that the world is a lot richer compared to before. If you look at China for instance, their middle class population has increased by more than 200 million people during recent decades, and they are all demanding better health. Also, the average health of the world is going up enormously and at the same time the populations of richer countries is getting older, which creates great opportunities to develop new products. I would say that we will be seeing two big markets in the near future – care of the elderly and care of the population in emerging countries.”

Dr Haseltine is currently active as a member of the board of several organizations. Among others, he is Chairman and President of ACCESS Health International, a foundation that operates in the United States, India, Singapore, Bangladesh, the Philippines and in Sweden, and that has as its main goal the provision of access to affordable, high quality health services in low, middle and high income countries.
“No matter if you live in Indonesia, North Africa or in a European country, you should be able to get the best health care possible. The goal of ACCESS Health International is to look all over the world and find the best tools that have been developed to cure and treat diseases. There isn’t one key solution and we can’t predict how each country will use the tools, but what we can do is teach people how to use them and provide them with the information.”

Speaking of healthcare systems, he isn’t sure that the one that currently exists in the United States is the right one for the country.
“In my opinion, it costs a lot of money and it delivers uneven results, which I would say is one of the major issues. It requires 18 percent of the GPD, compared to for instance Singapore, which spends less than 4 percent of its GDP on health care. There are many ideas to reform the system, as well as economic interests to include in the equation. That is why my next big challenge and project is to find and share the best health care systems from all over the world.”

When do you think you will retire?
“I don’t think I ever will. That is the great thing with science. You can be your own boss and therefore choose to work for as long as you like. It’s a wonderful world to be working in – it’s tremendously motivating and always challenging.”

William A. Haseltine
Age: 68
Family: Wife Maria Eugenia Maury and two children, Mara G Haseltine and Alexander G Haseltine.
Lives: In Washington DC and Manhattan, New York.
Education: BA in Chemistry, University of California Berkeley (1966), Graduate Degree: PhD Biophysics, Harvard University (1973), Postdoctoral Research, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1973-1976).
Work: Professor at Harvard Medical School/Harvard School of Public Health, Dana Faber Cancer Institute, 1976-1992. Chairman and CEO at Human Genome Sciences, Inc., 1993-2004. Chairman and President at ACCESS Health International, Inc. (current), President of the Haseltine Foundation for Medical Sciences and the Arts (current).
Hobbies: Loves art, music and history. “I probably spend more time in museums than most people.”

* Between 2003-2008, during George W Bush’s presidency, the President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) was run as a commitment of USD 15 billion to fight the global HIV/AIDS pandemic.