Looking Back on Distinguished Service Award Winner’s Pioneering Research

Note: September is Women in Medicine Month. To celebrate, the Pennsylvania Medical Society will feature the stories of Pennsylvania women physicians who have made a difference in their profession. Email us at stat@pamedsoc.org to tell us about a remarkable female physician you would like us to profile.

When M. Elaine Eyster, MD, was studying medicine, young men and boys afflicted with severe hemophilia rarely lived past their 19th birthdays.

“It was just devastating, because those who did survive lived on crutches or wheelchairs from joint damage they had from repeated bleeding episodes,” she says today.

In the decades since, Dr. Eyster has pioneered research into hemophilia and the transmission of HIV and hepatitis C. For her leadership and groundbreaking findings, Dr. Eyster will be awarded the Pennsylvania Medical Society’s most prestigious honor, the Distinguished Service Award, on Oct 24 during the House of Delegates and Annual Education Conference.

Growing up in York, Pa., Dr. Eyster learned from her father, a self-taught businessman, “how to think for yourself and be what you want to be.” At Duke University, she majored in chemistry until realizing she was “more of a people person than laboratory rat.”

Though she planned to pursue endocrinology, she learned to love hematology during her third-year residency assignment in New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center’s hematology division.

Dr. Eyster can’t separate research and patient care. “You have to understand the mechanisms of the disease before you can possibly think about treating it,” she says.

In 1969, Dr. Eyster and her husband, Dr. Robert E. Dye, left Cornell to join the new Hershey Medical Center. In 1973, Eyster launched Hershey Med’s Hemophilia Program – which she still leads in what is now Penn State Hershey – by contracting with Harrisburg Hospital’s Dr. Herb Bowman, a legend in hemophilia care.

In succeeding years, hemophilia treatment was revolutionized by development of commercially prepared clotting factors, developed from plasma donations. But some patients were contracting hepatitis C, and Eyster collected and froze patients’ blood samples to research the cause. Then, in 1982, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that some hemophilia patients were also infected with the same autoimmune disorder affecting gay men.

Among researchers scrambling for causes and solutions, Dr. Eyster and her team found themselves “in a unique position to investigate this mysterious illness” through the use of the frozen samples. She and collaborator Dr. James Goedert of the National Cancer Institute studied the causes of HIV infection and its impact on immune systems.

“Those frozen samples played an important role in helping us understand how the HIV infections were transmitted and particularly how the disease progressed once the individuals acquired the infection,” she says.

Dr. Eyster feels she has helped improve the quality of life for countless hemophilia patients, “one of the most grateful groups of people I’ve ever dealt with.” She even sees a cure ahead. She’s involved in trials of extended-duration clotting factors and better treatments for patients who develop inhibitors that render clotting factors ineffective. Plus, gene therapies are yielding methods that “hopefully in the not-too-distant future” will prompt patients to make their own clotting factors.

As she receives the 2015 Distinguished Service Award, Dr. Eyster wants to thank the many people who made her career possible, including Penn State Hershey Medical Center, which “put up with me for 45 years,” a “phenomenal staff” at the Hemophilia Program, and her husband, who passed away in 2010.

“I’ve been very fortunate,” she reflects. “I love doing what I do, and I’ve gotten to know so many wonderful people who’ve enriched my life. It’s really been a privilege to have played a role in their care. I also enjoy the intellectual part of it and the satisfaction that you get with problem solving and clinical research that’s related to their care. They go hand in hand.”

About Dr. Eyster

Mary Elaine Eyster, MD, FACP, Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center Distinguished Professor of Medicine and Pathology Director, Hemophilia Program Medical Director, Hemostasis and Special Coagulation Laboratories. Duke University School of Medicine, MD, 1960. Residency completed in Internal Medicine, New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center (now New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center), 1963.