With Cures on Horizon, Miller School Dedicates Schiff Center for Liver Diseases
For 43 years, hepatologist Eugene R. Schiff, M.D., who like his father before him is one of the world’s leading authorities on liver disease, has led the University’s clinical research aimed at developing improved treatments and cures for hepatitis B, C, and D, cirrhosis, and the entire spectrum of liver and biliary tract disorders.
Now, with the field of hepatology on the cusp of a long-awaited and dramatic transition in treatment, particularly for hepatitis C, the informal Center for Liver Diseases that Schiff and his late father founded to advance the University’s hepatology research is undergoing its own transition to a more formal and independent structure with a physical location and a new name: the Schiff Center for Liver Diseases.
“When it comes to liver disease, I think that we should rename the liver the Schiff,” Dean Pascal J. Goldschmidt, M.D., said at the April 12 ribbon-cutting ceremony officially dedicating the new center. “The Schiff family, Leon first, and then Eugene, his son, have contributed so much to the field it is impossible to measure the contribution. It’s practically everything that we know currently about liver disease, and the treatments.”
Located in suite 1101-East of Jackson Medical Tower, the 6,700-square foot center, which was made possible by the generous support of grateful patients, opens at a propitious time. Focused on clinical research for liver and biliary tract diseases, it brings together under one roof a cadre of liver specialists who are conducting clinical trials for, among other therapies, a new generation of interferon-free antiviral drugs that hold the promise of an easier-to-tolerate and more effective cure for viral hepatitis C.
The most common form of chronic liver inflammation and the leading cause of the exploding number of liver cancers, hepatitis C affects an estimated 5 million Americans, only a quarter of whom have been diagnosed.
“We are living in a fortunate time,” Schiff, the Leonard Miller Professor of Medicine and the Dr. Nasser Ibrahim Al-Rashid Chair in the Division of Hepatology/Schiff Center for Liver Diseases, said before the ceremony. “What’s going to happen with hepatitis C is what happened with HIV, when antiretroviral therapies turned the fatal disease into a chronic one. The difference with C is you can cure it. This center is a vital resource for the community and for patients who have access to promising new therapies that are not yet licensed.”
For example, he noted, patients with cirrhosis, or scarring of the liver, who must undergo a life-saving transplant always reinfect their new liver with hepatitis C. But now the center is directing a study with a new antiviral agent that breaks the vicious cycle of reinfection, further prolonging and enhancing the quality of the liver recipient’s life.
Named in honor of Schiff’s father, a renowned gastroenterologist and hepatologist who joined the University’s School of Medicine in 1970, the center also has a distinguished advisory board to provide oversight and advice. The members are Lee B. Chaykin, CEO of Kendall Regional Medical Center; Andrew J. Conrad, Ph.D., chief scientist for LabCorp; Scott L. Friedman, M.D., chief of the Division of Liver Diseases at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York and an expert in hepatic fibrosis; Arthur Hertz, chairman and CEO of Wometco Enterprises, Inc., and a member of UM’s Board of Trustees; and Raymond F. Schinazi, Ph.D., D.Sc., professor and director of the Laboratory of Biochemical Pharmacology at Emory University School of Medicine.
The younger Schiff, a graduate of Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York City, has followed closely in his father’s large and illustrious footprints. The senior Schiff was a founding member and first president of the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases (AASLD); his son was the association’s 51st president.
More than 50 years ago, the senior Schiff published the first edition of “Schiff’s Diseases of the Liver,” the world’s leading hepatology textbook, and edited the next three editions; the son, who co-edited the next three editions with his father, also co-edited all successive editions since his father’s 1994 death, recently publishing the 11th edition.
Like his father, the son also has authored and co-authored hundreds of articles in prestigious scientific journals, and many book chapters on liver diseases and related topics. And like his father, the son was elected a Master of the American College of Physicians, and is the recipient of numerous other awards and honors. Among them: the Florida Laureate Award presented by the American College of Physicians, the AASLD’s Distinguished Service Award, and the Society of the Professors of Medicine Lifetime Achievement Award.
He also has held many leadership positions, including past chairman of the Biliary Section of the American Gastroenterological Association, Florida governor of the American College of Physicians, and former chair of the FDA Advisory Committee on gastrointestinal drugs.
Yet the younger Schiff is, perhaps, most like his father when it comes to the high regard in which their patients have held each of them. Paying tribute to his father at the dedication, the son described him as a scholar and a gentleman who had a special compassion for his patients – whether they were CEOs or homeless people who slept under a bridge.
But as UM Trustee Stuart Miller made abundantly clear, the son could very well have been describing himself. When his own late father, for whom the Leonard M. Miller School of Medicine is named, was ill, Miller said his family searched the country for a liver expert, but needn’t have.
“Right here, in our own back yard, we had as our chief navigator Eugene Schiff, who as it turns out was the best in the business anyway. There was no reason to look any place else,” Miller said. “But most important was the bedside manner and the human care that was brought to bear on our unfortunate situation. That really made a difference. The human component was of such high quality that I can’t help but be excited about what this center represents to medicine across the country.”
For his part, Schiff is most excited about the new antiviral agents the center is testing, especially for hepatitis C. Usually transmitted by blood, hepatitis C already has surpassed HIV as a killer of adults in the U.S., striking many baby boomers who experimented – maybe just once – with intravenous drugs during the Viet Nam era and unwittingly contracted the virus by sharing tainted needles.
Asymptomatic for decades, they often don’t learn they are infected until the disease already has badly damaged their liver. Many have cirrhosis and need liver transplants. And many cannot tolerate the side effects of interferon, the natural, protein-based antiviral agent that has remained the foundation of the arduous treatment for hepatitis C, yet only has about a 40-percent cure rate.
But, Schiff says, the new generation of interferon-free antiviral regimens now in clinical trials at his center and others across the nation are showing a remarkable and easy-to-tolerate ability to cure hepatitis, and if administered early enough, could avert the development of both cirrhosis and cancer. As a result, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is moving toward a test-and-treat policy for all Americans between 45 and 65, the baby boom generation most at risk for hepatitis C.
The implementation of that policy may coincide with the FDA’s approval of the next generation of antiviral agents and, if so, the Schiff Center for Liver Diseases will ensure those who test positive receive the very latest, and most compassionate, care and treatment.