The ever-widening epidemic of hepatitis C virus—the leading cause of liver transplants in the United States—has long been ignored and neglected, says Lynn E. Taylor (MD ’97), assistant professor of medicine at Brown. This is partly because of its stigma, and partly because the real weight of it is just beginning to hit. Hep C has a decades-long dormant period before symptoms arise; and in the coming years, that clock will run out on the Baby Boomers, an estimated 1 in 30 of whom have the infection, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Yet Taylor is finding more reasons to be optimistic than at any other time in her 15 years of fighting hep C—both in the clinic, where she specializes in hep C/HIV coinfection, and in her research, where she’s working to scale up hep C screening and treatment.
In her own institutions, Taylor has worked to meet the needs of these complex cases by educating students in Brown’s med and public health schools about hep C, and by founding and directing the HIV/Viral Hepatitis Coinfection Clinic in Brown’s affiliate, Miriam Hospital.
At the state level, in 2013, a grant enabled her to launch a three-year, $300,000 campaign to eliminate the disease in Rhode Island—a lofty goal, she admits. But she stresses it’s time to begin framing the discussion in this way. The infection is indeed curable, though many people don’t realize it.
In the last two years, the FDA approved the first pills for hep C treatment, which either greatly shorten or eliminate the need for the highly toxic interferon injections that were previously these patients’ only hope (many of them can’t tolerate interferon). She’s now advocating for improved access to these meds, which cost upwards of $80,000 per course. Insurers balk at the price tag, but she’s spreading the message that that’s small potatoes compared to the alternatives: liver transplants and end-of-life care for 50- and 60-year-olds cut down in their prime.
“I’ve seen so many advances in the field of HIV,” she says, “and to witness [the same progress in hep C] condensed into five years, I just have to pinch myself.”