From The Lancet, March 20, 2013
By John Maurice
US researcher King Holmes has been awarded the Gairdner Foundation's 2013 global health prize for his scientific contributions to the field of sexually transmitted diseases. John Maurice reports.
Ask him to describe the achievements for which he was awarded the prestigious Gairdner prize and King Holmes, head of the University of Washington's department of global health, will talk about the work of the 100 or so predoctoral and postdoctoral fellows he has trained in disciplines related to sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). He will describe some of the ground-breaking studies that his trainees have done over the past 40 years. He will talk about how his fellows developed new ways of diagnosing, preventing, and treating these diseases and how they helped to lengthen the list of known STDs from six to more than 30 during the past four decades. And he will mention, with a touch of almost paternal pride, the brilliant careers that so many of his trainees have enjoyed since leaving his purview.
“What I'm proudest of”, he tells The Lancet, “is that my trainees have done so well and have gone on to take leadership positions running academic departments and STD and AIDS control programmes throughout the world.” One day, he recalls, “a trainee said to me: ‘King, the reason you've been so successful is because you recruited the smartest trainees.’ He was right.”
That trainee was Robert Brunham, who now heads the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control in Canada. “Holmes”, says Brunham, “has an amazing gift for connecting with people of all walks of life. He also has a talent for connecting areas of understanding, such as the narrower field of research on STDs to the broader field of infectious diseases and research findings to the needs of patients. And above all he is an amazing mentor who has trained a whole generation of researchers, many of whom who have, thanks to him, become influential leaders.”
John Dirks, president and scientific director of the Gairdner Foundation, says Holmes “brought to medicine and public health the proper means of diagnosing, treating, and preventing STDs and of understanding their epidemiology. In addition, his amazing gift of mentorship launched so many trainees to the forefront of the global health scene, which, thanks in great measure to their achievements, is now a flourishing discipline in its own right. Holmes' huge lifetime contribution has no parallel. Among the many mountains on the public health landscape he stands out as an Everest.”
The Canada Gairdner Foundation award, valued at CAN$100 000 (£64 000), is one of the world's most esteemed prizes for medical research. It is awarded to recipients on a personal basis for their personal use. But, typically, Holmes goes beyond the personal: “It's a really distinguished honour that makes me feel so happy to have worked in the area of global health and also because it marks a recognition of the detrimental impact of STDs on global health at a time when public awareness of that impact is seriously declining and public support for research on countering that impact is on the wane.”
Holmes' search for ways of controlling STDs began in Pearl Harbor in 1964, when he was drafted, during a medical internship at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, into the US navy during the Vietnam war. On his first day as an epidemiologist in the Pearl Harbor preventive medicine unit, he found his desk stacked high with reports of severe penicillin-resistant gonorrhoea in sailors of the 7th fleet in the West Pacific. He promptly designed a clinical trial, which found that adding probenecid to the standard penicillin-alone treatment of men with gonorrhoea symptoms raised the cure rate from 70% to 100%. His journey on the path to excellence as a leader on the global health scene—taken always in the company of his teams of trainees and fellows—had begun.
Landmark studies on that journey include one that identified the Dalkon shield intrauterine contraceptive device as the cause of pelvic inflammatory disease; another demonstrated the efficacy of antiviral treatment for herpes; two others confirmed the efficacy of vaccines against cervical cancer; yet another showed that a formula-fed baby of an HIV-positive mother is less likely than a breastfed baby to become infected with the virus; and yet another showed that epididymitis is caused not by physical strain, as previously thought, but by gonorrhoea or chlamydial infection.
Holmes' journey, though, is far from finished. He recently cofounded a consortium of universities for global health. He also heads the International Training and Education Center for Health, which trains thousands of health workers in 30 countries in clinical and laboratory work on HIV/AIDS. In addition, he is a member or chair of 35 US health and human services departments and 18 intergovernmental committees, councils, and boards. Does he, one may ask, have any spare time for just…living? “Indeed I do”, he answers with a smile. “Give me a good detective novel, some really good wine, and a blazing fire in the hearth, and I'll find the time.”