In the 30 years since Hing Leung Sham earned his doctorate in synthetic organic chemistry from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, AIDS was first reported in children, HIV was identified as the cause of the disease, and the Global Movement for Children estimated that 4 million HIV-infected children and infants were at risk of developing life-threatening infections.
“HIV in the 1980s and 1990s was a fatal disease, the lifespan, one-to-two years,” recalls Sham.
Now HIV is treated as other chronic diseases, such as high blood pressure, with a medication regimen that keeps infections at bay. Sham played a major role in the transition—as primary inventor of anti-viral Kaletra, the first HIV protease inhibitor approved for children as young as six months, and co-inventor of a second protease inhibitor Norvir.
The work earned the Hong Kong–born chemist a 2003 American Chemical Society Heroes of Chemistry award.
Inventor on 76 issued U.S. patents and author or co-author on more than 170 peer-reviewed scientific publications, Sham also received awards from employer Abbott Laboratories, as well as Inventor of the Year honors from the Intellectual Property Owners Association and Intellectual Property Law Association of Chicago.
After 23 years of conducting drug research on cardiovascular, cancer, infectious and metabolic diseases at Abbott, he joined Elan Biopharmaceuticals as senior vice president of chemical sciences, where he leads drug discovery efforts for autoimmune, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other neurodegenerative diseases.
Sham knew he was destined to do important things, but says “honestly, I did not predict it would reach this stage.” He credits the guidance of his University of Hawaiʻi graduate mentor Professor Hisashi Yamamoto and his Abbott Laboratories supervisor Jake Plattner, now with Anacor Pharmaceuticals, for preparing him well.
Sham came to the United States in 1972 to study at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis and earned his master of science at Iowa State University before entering the UH doctoral program. He returned to his Hawaiʻi alma mater in May 2011 to receive the university’s Distinguished Alumni Award and delivered a lecture at the UH Mānoa Department of Chemistry.
“The faculty in my opinion is very distinguished,” he says. “The chemistry department is still excellent compared to many universities on the mainland.”
He praises his wife, who “has the hardest job—even more important function” as family homemaker, and he speaks proudly of his children. The eldest son is pursuing an MBA at Massachusetts Institute of Technology; his daughter is in graduate school studying social work at Boston College; the younger son is a seventh grader who frequently changes his mind about a future occupation.
Sham enjoys reading and traveling with his family. He spends much of his free time doing volunteer work connected with his church. Passionate about his work, he shows no signs of slowing down. After all, there are more treatments to discover and invent that will benefit mankind.