In 2008, after seven years of efficacy testing on a tuberculosis vaccine on which he led development, C. Fordham (Ford) von Reyn ’67, Geisel ’69, received a phone call from the data and safety monitoring board that oversaw the study.
They told von Reyn to stop the trial. “The vaccine has been shown to be effective,” they said.
“That was exciting,” von Reyn says with a smile, “That was really exciting.”
“My jaw dropped,” says Lisa Adams, Geisel ’90, a researcher on the project and associate dean for global health at Geisel. “I just remember thinking, ‘Ford’s done it.’ ”
What von Reyn had done was create DAR-901, the first new vaccine in 85 years shown to be effective against the disease. The TB vaccine developed in 1928 is effective only for the first 15 years of life; DAR-901 has shown to reduce rates of TB in HIV-infected patients.
For his groundbreaking research, as well as his leadership as a member of the Section of Infectious Disease and International Health at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, von Reyn will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease in Vancouver, B.C., today, March 1, 2013.
But the soft-spoken physician is quick to deflect credit.
“An award like this is never for one person,” says von Reyn, professor of medicine at Geisel. “It’s for a team. None of this would have been possible without these other people.”
These other people are the mentors, colleagues, and students he’s worked with during his career. Sitting in his office, surrounded by photographs of his family and shelves of thick, white binders with labels like “DarDar: Form D,” von Reyn recalls his journey in medicine. He talks about his days as a student at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth when he first became interested in infectious diseases.
“It was Dr. Elmer Pfefferkorn,” says von Reyn. “He was my introduction to infectious diseases. He was, as he has been ever since, just a wonderful and inspirational teacher.
“I became very interested in infectious diseases because of their global importance and the fact that they were potentially preventable.”
As a medical student, von Reyn worked at a clinic in Atlanta that treated sexually transmitted diseases. After medical school, he became the state epidemiologist for New Mexico, monitoring diseases such as rabies, plague, and diphtheria.
“Visitors often considered New Mexico a foreign country,” he says with a smile. “You’d have Texans calling, asking what immunizations they needed to come to New Mexico.”
Von Reyn, who is originally from the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, eventually made his way back to the Northeast. He worked in primary care for 11 years in Concord, N.H., before being offered a position as head of the new Infectious Disease Section at DHMC.
When he started in 1988, von Reyn was the only faculty member in the department. Today the section has 13 faculty members and more than 40 staff members. Von Reyn, director of Geisel’s DarDar Programs in Tanzania, says it’s been wonderful to see the department grow and to work with junior colleagues.
The feeling appears to be mutual.
“He’s been a terrific mentor, personally, and for so many in the section,” says Richard Waddell, research assistant professor of medicine. “He’s brought a lot of people a long way forward.”
“He cares,” says Lisa Adams. “He’s never too busy to talk to someone about their career and professional development.”
Of course, von Reyn excels in much more than mentorship, Adams says. He is also great teacher and researcher, as evidenced by his work on DAR-901.
Along with Adams, Waddell, Timothy Lahey, and Robert Arbeit of Tufts University School of Medicine, von Reyn spent more than 15 years developing the vaccine, which has shown to reduce the rate of TB in 39 percent of patients who have AIDS. TB killed 1.4 million people worldwide in 2011, according to the World Health Organization.
“There are probably 40 different groups studying new TB vaccines in the world,” says von Reyn. “This is the first one that’s ever shown any efficacy in humans, so we’re very excited about that.”
He says safety testing of the vaccine is ongoing. It will be several years before the product could become available to the public. He says there are numerous challenges, but he remains optimistic and committed to the project.
“That is really my main goal,” he says, “to see that vaccine move forward to be licensed.”
It may be years before he hears the results of the safety testing. But von Reyn, determined to see this through, will wait patiently for the next phone call.