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Stopping a Deadly Cycle

European Inventor of the Year 2008 in the category "Lifetime achievement"

Until recently, physicians had extremely limited options available when treating viral infections. Viruses' ability to mutate and the difficulty of selectively targeting them left physicians to treat symptoms instead of attacking the infectious agents themselves. Today, clinicians have effective weapons in their arsenal thanks largely to four decades of virological research by Professor Erik De Clercq of the University of Leuven, Belgium.

De Clercq's landmark contributions to biomedical sciences include the development of new antiviral agents for the treatment of viral infections ranging from different forms of herpes to hepatitis B and HIV. In fact, De Clercq and his team are single-handedly responsible for developing some of the original drugs against HIV. They also inspired a switch from monotherapy (treatment with one kind of drug) to the use of up to four agents at a time - the "drug cocktail" that is now the standard treatment approach for HIV. He is best known for opening up the field of so-called "nucleotide analogues", which spawned the first-ever series of broad-spectrum antiviral drugs.

The implications of his findings can hardly be overstated. As our understanding of viruses has grown over the past decades, researchers have found that direct complications from viral infections are only half the story. Viruses can cause cancers and other complications. For example, the polyomavirus has been proven to cause tumours, and a direct link between the papilloma virus and cervical cancer has been established. These links make potent antiviral drugs even more important.

De Clerq has always displayed a strong passion for research, making the laboratory his second home since he began his medical career in 1966. Since 1972, he has led the Laboratory for Virology at Leuven University's Rega Institute for Medical Research. De Clercq has published over 2100 papers in peer-reviewed scientific journals and has given more than 530 lectures at international congresses, conferences and symposia on various aspects of antiviral chemotherapy. An active member of countless boards and advisory committees, including the World Health Organization (WHO) Expert Advisory Panel on Virus Diseases, De Clercq is addressing the pressing issues of our times, including the threat of an H5N1 "avian flu" pandemic.

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Snapshot (JPG)

How it works

De Clercq's new breed of drugs prevents retroviruses from taking over their host cells and turning them into factories that produce millions more viruses - viruses that go on to infect other cells and, eventually, overwhelm the body's defences. De Clercq' "nucleotide analogues" achieve this by mimicking the shape and contours of the four building blocks of DNA, the replicating blueprint from which viruses spawn countless copies of themselves after "re-programming" their host cells. Since the virus "believes" the drug to be a building block from which it can make DNA, it incorporates the drug into a growing DNA strand. Once incorporated, the drug then blocks the reproduction process of the virus.

At a glance

Erik De Clercq (Belgium) 
Contributions to antiviral therapy
Healthcare - Virology