Lengthening Lifespans

The desire to treat people living with HIV grew from Joe Eron’s first inpatient rotation as a medical student in the early 1980s.

“There was this young man who was so sick, and we did not know what was wrong with him,” Eron recalled. “I was struck by two things. First, it was such a complicated case. We would get one thing under control and something else would flare up. And second, this man’s partner was so devoted to him, remaining by his side constantly. This man died of what we now know is AIDS. He and his partner left such an impression on me. I desperately wished we had known more about HIV at that time so we could have saved his partner’s life.”

Eron accepted a position directing UNC’s Infectious Diseases Clinic in 1992 and has since built an accomplished clinical care, research and teaching career at Carolina. His first clinical trial led to a groundbreaking conclusion — combinations of antiretroviral therapy worked better than single-drug treatment. Patients stopped dying.

“Combination therapy is when things really started to change for clinicians,” Eron said. “We went from being end-of-life-care advocates — helping patients tell their loved ones they were dying or sometimes staying with them as they died alone — to giving them a new outlook on life.”

Now that therapy with minimal side effects exists, Eron seeks answers to the next big question: How do you return people living with HIV back to complete health? Although people living with HIV live longer than those diagnosed before effective antiretroviral therapy, their lives are still often cut short.

“We have so many theories about — Are the meds not good enough? Do we start antiretroviral therapy sooner? Is the immune system too damaged by the virus to be repaired?” Eron said. “We need to understand how to fully restore the immune system. There’s no textbook on how to do this. But at UNC, we’ve assembled a team that understands the biology of viral latency, study design and clinical care. It will take a village, but it can be done.”

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