Citation Laureate 2021 spotlight: Ho Wang Lee

“Virus research can never be successful if you think you will follow in someone else’s footsteps.”

Citation Laureate 2021 and award-winning scientist Ho Wang Lee shares advice for budding researchers

Every year Clarivate recognizes a handful of world-class researchers as Citation Laureates™. This tribute celebrates the scientific and research elite whose contributions to science have been transformative, even revolutionary, as attested by their exceptionally high citation record within the Web of Science™.
What does it take to be a researcher of Nobel class? In this interview, Dr. Ho Wang Lee, one of our Citation Laureates for 2021 in Physiology or Medicine, shares his story about finding his calling and offers advice to young researchers. His recognition as a Citation Laureate is based on his identification and isolation of the Hantaan virus (hantavirus), agent of hemorrhagic fever with renal syndrome.

How does It feel to be a Citation Laureate?

I am very pleased that I have been selected as a Citation Laureate in 2021. By the time I started my research in the 1970s, Korea was considered a latecomer in the international research industry, and I had several difficulties in carrying out research. I am delighted to know that my research has provided a clue to the cause of the world’s hemorrhagic disease and that it brought inspiration to many other researchers. Another pleasing aspect is that my research has provided a chance to improve human health protection, even in the smallest way.

Tell us a bit about yourself and your research.

I am Ho Wang Lee, a researcher who discovered the Hantaan virus for the first time in the world. I participated in the Minnesota project and decided to move to the United States to study abroad. After 4 years of studies, I returned to Korea and became a full-time lecturer at the Faculty of Medicine of Seoul National University from late 1959, lecturing and conducting research at the same time.

Why did you choose epidemic hemorrhagic fever as your research topic?

The United States granted research funds to researchers around the world. Under this program I visited the University of Minnesota and the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research to find a new research topic. There, I had a conversation with Colonel Busher, the former director of the virus research department, about the U.S. Army research funds and the hemorrhagic fever epidemic.
The United States had studied epidemic hemorrhagic fever from 1952 to 1967 but could not detect the pathogen in those 15 years and had almost given up. I saw this as an interesting opportunity, so in 1969, I submitted a research plan for investigating the pathogen of hemorrhagic fever to the Far East Command of the U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Headquarters in Japan. Five months later, I received a notice from the U.S. Army saying they would grant me $40,000 in research funding for three years from 1970.

Can you tell us more about your epidemiological hemorrhagic fever research process?

During the first six years of my research on epidemic hemorrhagic fever, there were many crises and failures. While hunting mice around the military base, I was mistaken for an armed spy and received warning shots. Some of the researchers were infected and almost lost their lives.

“While hunting mice around the military base, I was mistaken for an armed spy and received warning shots.”

Despite examining the internal organs of the mouse, which was presumed to be the host, we could not detect the antigen. Even bringing advanced techniques such as immunofluorescence and immunoelectron microscopy did not provide successful results.

To make things worse, in 1975, U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Headquarters could no longer fund the research due to the closure of the Far East Branch. However, I never backed down.

Fortunately, Dr. Jellison, who had retired from NIH hemorrhagic fever research, sent a booklet and a letter containing his research results. He also advised me to look at the fungal toxin that parasitizes the vole’s lung. At that time, other organs of the hemorrhagic fever-infected patient bled, but toxic lungs were not developing lesions, so all researchers, including myself, excluded the lungs from the study. Based on his advice, I tested the lungs and the fluorescent antibody reacted in the microscope, giving it a yellowish tint.

“The yellow light seen through the microscope shimmered like the Milky Way in the night sky.”

In April 1976, I announced that I had discovered the hemorrhagic fever virus.

Is this the virus known as Hantaan Virus, or hantavirus?

Yes, that’s right. It was named Hantaan orthohantavirus because the pathogen originated from the rats living in the Hantan River basin. After the discovery of the virus, the World Health Organization (WHO) supported vaccine research funds for two years, and since 1986, there was support from the Green Cross as well. In November 1988, the world’s first preventive vaccine called Hantavax was developed.

Do you have any advice for younger researchers who are studying viruses?

To a scientist, fortune is a gift that comes from hard work. Therefore, it is very important not to think about giving up even if you fail. I had written numerous papers and never thought of giving up before I found the existence of the virus.

“Virus research can never be successful if you think you will follow in someone else’s footsteps.”

It requires high-level skills and creative ideas that no one else can think of, as well as the ability to win research grants from world-class research institutes such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

For the future leading scientists, I want parents to tell their children to always have great ambitions. Parents need to motivate their children to one day do great things for their country and society.

If you want to be scientist in the future, a piece of valuable advice from me is to think a lot, because ‘thinking’ is very important for a researcher. Wherever you are – on a train, subway or on the road – repetitive thinking regardless of place is one fast-track to be successful.

Also, please keep in mind that benefactors are always nearby. If you make a lot of effort, your benefactors will always be visible. Looking back at my life, I have always had one, whenever I had difficulties. I didn’t have much chance to choose something, but it seems that I have always been chosen.