By Ian Morton | Profiles in Advocacy
2015 Truax Award-winner, Dr. Douglas Richman
The late-December/early-January “Profiles in Advocacy” column tends to be the one closest to my heart, for a couple of reasons.
First of all, it marks my column anniversary, as my first piece was written about 2012 Dr. A. Brad Truax Award-winner, Liz Johnson of Christie’s Place.
Secondly, to honor World AIDS Day (Dec. 1) and AIDS Awareness Month (December), I have a tradition of dedicating each year’s issue to the individual honored by the San Diego HIV/AIDS community with that year’s Truax award, given out annually by San Diego County’s Health and Human Services HIV Branch.
Because my own advocacy roots are in the HIV field, this is always the perfect way for me to reflect upon my personal advocacy plan, heading into the New Year.
Named for physician activist Dr. A. Brad Truax, this award recognizes an individual who has displayed a commitment in the field of HIV/AIDS, transforming the landscape as we know it.
This year’s recipient is perhaps one of San Diego’s most “unsung heroes” locally, though recognized worldwide as one of the pioneers of HIV/AIDS research: UC San Diego’s Dr. Douglas Richman.
The arc of Richman’s research career would defy the constraints of this column, but it’s important to acknowledge that some of the basic tenets of HIV care have been developed as a result of his work.
Foundational knowledge — such as HIV drug resistance (the virus’s ability to mutate to resist medications) and the reservoir of latent HIV (pockets of “inactive” HIV in the body which cannot be detected and impacted by current HIV medications) — was established through his research.
Of particular note was that Richman knew and actually worked with Truax, making this year’s presentation that much more poignant. Richman touched upon this during his acceptance and I was excited to discuss this a bit more during our interview.
Their first interaction was in 1979, through a student who was looking at instances of Hepatitis B in the MSM (men who sleep with men) community and happened to use samples from Truax’s private practice clinic. In the 1980s, when the antibody test for HIV was developed, Richman tested those same samples, finding that about 15 percent of those individuals were co-infected with HIV and Hep B, as early as 1979.
Even more significant, in a time when acquiring venues for research space was challenging, Truax offered his clinic space for the very first AZT (Retrovir) clinical drug trial in the world, conducted by Dr. Richman. These early trials led to the first antiretroviral therapy and opened the door to “HAART” (Highly Active Antiretroviral Therapy) in combatting HIV.
It was also during this time that Richman noted Truax’s commitment to making HIV a priority in San Diego County.
Thirty-plus years later, Dr. Richman is focused on the HIV Cure Initiative, which will likely be the fitting final effort to a career dedicated to quietly fighting HIV on many fronts. He recognizes that this may be a 10- to 20-year process, and also hopes to see TasP (Treatment as Prevention) continue to be highlighted and implemented, as a strategy to end new infections, both nationally and globally.
Even as a pre-eminent figure in the field of research, Richman has continued his role as a physician. Having lived through and practiced what he has often referred to as “battlefield medicine” during the initial HIV pandemic, he finds it gratifying to see how HIV treatment, which was developed, in part, as a progression of that first AZT trial, has vastly changed the face of HIV.
“A lot of my long-term patients — some of who have been with me 10 to 20 years — now we’re growing old together,” he remarked. “I’m having the opportunity to address the more mundane issues, such as smoking cessation and keeping a healthy weight.”
As we closed our discussion, Richman was optimistic about the global increase of HIV-infected individuals in care, citing that nearly 15 million people are in treatment, but also noted that to achieve 100 percent retention in care, HIV must continue to remain a focus of donors.
Because HIV is no longer a “death sentence,” it is easy to become complacent, but we have the tools to end new infections. It is access to those tools for the most vulnerable that comprises the new challenge.
Richman will be passing some of his “batons” to UC San Diego’s very worthy successors as he revels in his other roles as husband, father and grandfather. His legacy encompasses the very foundation of HIV research and treatment, and he has truly earned a place among those who have transformed the framework for ultimately defeating this disease.
To learn more about Dr. Richman and the HIV research that takes place at UC San Diego, please visit cfar.ucsd.edu.
—Ian D. Morton is the senior program analyst at San Diego Human Dignity Foundation and produces the Y.E.S. San Diego LGBTQ youth conference. To nominate an individual or nonprofit for this column, please email the information to firstname.lastname@example.org.