Professor Eric De Clercq's Address
The 4th of June 2009, a memorable day in Ceské Budejovice
Být zde dnes ctvrtého cervna dvatisíce devet v Ceských Budejovicích ocenen spolu s profesorem Antonínem Holým titulem Doktor Honoris Causa nebo také cestným doktorátem Jihoceské university je pro me opravdu úžasné...
To be here today, the 4th of June 2009, in Ceské Budejovice, to be awarded together with Dr. Antonín Holý, the degree of Doctor Honoris Causa or Honorary Doctor from the University of South Bohemia is just wonderful, or, in Österreichisch, "ganz wunderbar". Anthonin Holý has been my "compagnon de route" for 33 years, since we met for the first time in the beginning of May 1976 in Göttingen (at the Symposium on Synthetic Nucleosides, Nucleotides and Polynucleotides, Max-Planck-Institut für Biophysikalische Chemie, 3-5 May 1976) at a meeting reserved for genuine chemists (where I was the only exception to the rule). This first encounter led to the start of an highly productive collaboration which resulted in more than 70 joint publications, in reputable journals such as Science, Nature, PNAS and … the CCCC (Collection of Czechoslovak Chemical Communications). More importantly, this collaboration led to the discovery of three new products (cidofovir, adefovir and tenofovir) that have been licensed worldwide for the treatment of a wide variety of virus infections including herpes, hepatitis B and AIDS; and the third of these three, tenofovir is marketed as such, Viread® [tenofovir disoproxil fumarate (TDF)], but also as a double-drug combination with emtricitabine (Truvada®) and as a triple-drug combination with emtricitabine and efavirenz (Atripla®), and a quadruple drug combination (containing tenofovir disoproxil fumarate, emtricitabine, elvitegravir and a "booster") is under development.
This uniquely successful collaboration started in 1976 between both sides of the Iron Curtain, when the Czech Republic was still part of the Czechoslovak Republic (Ceskoslovensko). The Iron Curtain had little impact on my collaboration with Dr. Holý. It continued to grow and led in 1986 to our pivotal paper on the compound HPMPA in Nature (A novel selective broad-spectrum anti-DNA virus agent. Nature, 323: 464-467 (1986)). HPMPA heralded the advent of several hundreds of acyclic nucleoside phosphonates to see the light over the next twenty years or so. This family of compounds not only include the three compounds cited above (cidofovir, adefovir and tenofovir), but also several others that yield great potential for use against some tumors, including lymphoma's and papilloma's, as well as variety of veterinary virus infections.
In 1996, Prof. Holý in an interview with Der Spiegel was quoted as follows ("Ich wäre nichts ohne De Clercq", sagt er und fügt mit einem schweijkschen Augenzwinkern hinzu: "De Clercq wäre aber auch nichts ohne mich". Und die Leute bei Gilead ? "Sie lieferten das Sahnehäubchen", sagt er, der Erfolg hätte demnach "drei gleichberechtigte geistige Väter." In fact, Gilead Sciences was not only the whipping cream on the cake, they brought to full life those compounds that had been synthesized by a real chemist working in Prague at IOCB in a Laboratory that (because of its historical value) should be kept in its original state, and a pseudochemist working in Leuven, under medieval conditions (according to a Dutch Journalist), in a Laboratory that no longer exists in its original state. I am particularly delighted that John C. Martin, President of Gilead Sciences, has made the whole trip from San Francisco to Ceské Budejovice to upheave the splendor of this Honorary Doctor Ceremony with his presence.
Regretfully, my knowledge of Czech is really non-existing, except for a few words like "Dobrý den", "Dobré ráno", "Dobrou noc", "Dobrou chut", which, according to my Czech friends, I pronounce rather well. "Na vaše zdraví" is already more difficult. So the question is, what brought a Belgian from as far a city as Leuven to Ceské Budejovice? A rather obvious reason may be the beer (pivo in Czech). Leuven is a beer city (with Stella Artois as the local brand) and so is Ceské Bud?jovice (the city of Budweis or Budvar). Except for the beer, there are not so many connections between the two cities, let stand the two Universities.
This is going to change, thanks to Professor Antonín Holý, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, thanks to Professor Libor Grubhoffer. In 2006, when I reached the inevitable age of 65, the biggest sin you can commit at our University (or any other University in Belgium), I was summoned to relinquish all my functions (administrative, teaching and scientific). No problem for the administrative functions; for these functions there were enough candidates that were already at their "fin de carriere" at the age of minus 60, but the problem was I loved teaching (and I still do) and, of course, I wanted to continue my research work which had been so productive over the 40 years of my scientific career. To Tony Holý I expressed my dismay (or disenchantment) about the sword of Damocles which was waiting for me in September 2006 at the end of the academic year in which I turned 65 and Tony Holý wrote to me a very nice letter (I still keep this letter as a relic), encouraging me to consider for my post-retirement age the friendly skies of Prague. To cite Tony, "we most certainly do not wish to see you on the list of unemployed early retired university professors".
I was finally allowed (not stimulated) to continue to give a small course of 24 hours a year at our University (whereas I had been teaching roughly 240 hours a year before my forced retirement) and to continue my scientific research with my collaborators, abroad albeit without any technical help (although I could continue to count on the editorial assistance of Christiane Callebaut which has been invaluable for my publication record).
Prof. Holý with the help of his Director, Zdenek Havlas, could arrange for me to give a course on antivirals in Prague, which I did during the spring of 2007, and I fondly remember the few students who attended this (not broadly advertised). Course till the very end and finally passed the examination.
Then Prof. Holý told me I should get into contact with his good friend in Ceské Budejovice (I had to look at the map where in the Czech Republic, this place, Ceské Budejovice, was located, and Tony Holý taught me how to pronounce Ceské Budejovice correctly. My first contact with Tony Holý's good friend in Ceské Budejovice was by phone from Holý's office in Prague, and the voice on the other end of the phone line told me that for his students he wanted me to give a Course that was more broadly oriented than just antiviral chemotherapy, and so the Course on "Biochemistry at the Service of Medicine" was born.
The voice from Ceské Budejovice was, of course, that of Prof. Libor Grubhoffer. I have now already given this Course (30 hours in total) at the Faculty of Sciences of The University of South Bohemia two times, in the Fall of 2007 and in the Fall/Winter of 2008 for a mixed audience of students coming from both the University of South Bohemia in Ceské Budejovice and Kepler University in Linz (Austria), and if Libor permits (and I hope he will), I would love to give this Course again in the next academic year (Fall/Winter of 2009). I have felt an appreciation, not only from Professor Grubhoffer but also from his family and students, which I never experienced any place else any time before. I therefore dedicate this honorary degree from the University of South Bohemia to Libor, his family and his students.
Cítil jsem uznání nejen od Profesora Grubhoffera, ale také od jeho rodiny a studentů, které jsem nikdy jindy a nikde jinde předtím nezažil. A proto venuji tento cestný titul udelený Universitou v Ceských Budejovicích Liborovi, jeho rodine a jeho studentům.
Lastly, but most importantly, I want you to know how very much my wife would have loved to attend this wonderful event today, but, unfortunately, she could not do so. I thank her for her unconditional support lifelong, and we both thank Jihoceská Universita v Ceských Budejovicích for the honor that I received.
MH © 10.VI.2009