It’s not every day you meet someone who changed the way the world understood the development of HIV and hepatitis C or any other infectious disease. But that is precisely the accomplishment of Dr. Elaine Eyster, distinguished professor of medicine and pathology at Penn State College of Medicine and the 2018 recipient of Penn State Alumni Association’s Honorary Alumni Award.
“In the early 1980s, it became apparent to us that our patients with hemophilia were coming down with unexpected infections,” says Dr. James Ballard, professor of medicine, pathology and humanities at the College of Medicine, who was hired as a hematology fellow by Eyster in 1975 and has worked with her ever since. “Although we didn’t know at the time what it was, we suspected something pretty bad was happening.”
By a stroke of either serendipity or genius, Eyster had stored plasma from her hemophilia patients for years, and as co-founder and long-time director of the Hemophilia Center of Central Pennsylvania, she and fellow clinician-researchers were able to use those samples to research the epidemiology of the emerging infection: HIV.
“She was at the right place at the right time with the right ideas, and that is something that doesn’t happen very often,” says Ballard.
Eyster’s work revolutionized the world’s understanding of the natural history of HIV infection in individuals with hemophilia, making a demonstrable impact on HIV counselling and thrusting the College of Medicine and the Hemophilia Center into the national spotlight.
“Thanks in a large part to the research studies conducted by Eyster and her collaborators, the prognosis for people with HIV improved dramatically,” says Dr. Leslie Parent, vice dean of research and graduate education at the College of Medicine and Eyster’s colleague since 1991.
Before long, Eyster’s stored plasma samples worked the same magic on hepatitis C. Coupled with the Hemophilia Center’s regular participation in groundbreaking clinical trials, Eyster’s research helped cement the college’s reputation in the academic medical community.
In her 48 years at Penn State and her long tenure leading the Hemophilia Center, the center has grown from just a few dozen patients to more than 500 and is now involved in one of the first-ever gene therapy trials for hemophilia.
Learn more about Dr. Elaine Eyster in this Penn State Medicine article.
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