Conducted pioneering work to combat HIV/AIDS that has saved countless lives, organized breakthrough clinical trials for Ebola in Africa and helped establish medical guidelines to treat COVID-19 during the pandemic.

H. Clifford Lane, M.D.

During four decades at the National Institutes of Health, Dr. H. Clifford Lane has conducted lifesaving research for people with HIV/AIDS, had an enormous impact combating and treating infectious diseases overseas such as Ebola, and helped establish national treatment guidelines for COVID-19 amid the deadly pandemic.

“Cliff Lane is the rare combination of a clinician and a brilliant clinical investigator who also plays a major leadership role at NIH,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

“Cliff is an exemplar of a physician-scientist who does many things well: conducting research, running clinical trials and teaching, all with the highest levels of ethics and integrity. His work at home and globally has had an enormous impact,” Fauci said. “To be quite honest, I’ve never seen anybody like him.”

Two years after Lane arrived at NIH, he and Fauci established the NIH AIDS research program. There, Lane pioneered studies investigating how HIV causes the immune deficiency central to AIDS.

Lane has led more than 30 clinical trials generating critical information about how HIV causes disease, how best to treat patients and when to start antiretroviral treatment. His work has been pivotal in turning an HIV diagnosis from a fatal infection into a manageable chronic disease. In 1988, he also led the first U.S. trial of a still elusive HIV vaccine.

“When you think about his work, it’s the difference between dying from HIV and being able to live with HIV,” said Dawn O’Connell, the assistant secretary for preparedness and response at the Department of Health and Human Services.

On the international level, Lane developed a clinical research partnership with Liberia during its ongoing Ebola outbreak in 2014. The initial goal, to launch clinical trials of experimental Ebola vaccines and therapies, received intense pushback from some outside Liberia when Lane insisted that the design be the gold standard—a randomized, controlled clinical trial.

“Think about trying to run rigorous randomized clinical trials in Liberia and later in the Democratic Republic of the Congo with all of the logistical challenges, the uncertainty of the health care system and the need for training of researchers who could conduct the study in that kind of fashion—talk about obstacles,” said Dr. Francis Collins, the former NIH director and now acting science adviser to President Joe Biden.

“I don’t know if there’s anybody else on the planet who could have pulled that off,” Collins said. “Cliff is the perfect role model of a highly trained physician-scientist who is capable of responding in an emergency situation by the skill of his diplomatic abilities and his determination to get scientific answers that are going to save lives.”

In 2018, the Democratic Republic of the Congo requested Lane’s help to establish a collaborative research partnership as an Ebola outbreak emerged in a war-torn area of the country. Despite the challenging environment, the partners conducted a pivotal clinical trial that identified the first two Ebola treatments to later receive Food and Drug Administration approval.

When working in developing nations, Lane “never gets discouraged by things like technical or bureaucratic obstacles,” Fauci said. “He figures out ways of getting the people in-country to appreciate that it’s their show as opposed to his. He leaves them with a sustainable intellectual and principled infrastructure to continue long after he’s gone.”

Most recently, Lane helped establish an NIH-led public-private partnership that set clinical research priorities for COVID-19 and has led a series of clinical trials in patients hospitalized with the virus. He also co-chairs the NIH COVID-19 Treatment Guidelines Panel that has provided health care providers, patients and policy experts with the most up-to-date information regarding the optimal treatment and management of people with COVID-19. The online recommendations, continually updated, have garnered more than 30 million page views worldwide.

“I basically leaned on Cliff to be my point of contact for everything to do with infectious disease consequences of this pandemic,” Collins said. “He never failed to give me the wisest, most well-informed advice.”

Stewart Simonson, assistant director-general of the New York office of the World Health Organization, said Lane has helped make the United States “safer and more resilient and better prepared for infectious disease threats during his time at NIH.”

“He is an implementer and a doer. He delivers with integrity and excellent judgment, and a selfless commitment to mission,” Simonson said. “Cliff is among the finest public servants I have ever encountered.”

Looking back on his career, Lane said he’s probably proudest of his work studying and treating people living with HIV/AIDS.

“Being able to provide leadership on the treatment guidelines for HIV and having the chance to see over the course of my career how we’ve progressively done better in dealing with HIV/AIDS has been extremely rewarding,” Lane said.

When Lane first started at the NIH more than 42 years ago, he said he was just looking for a place to study infectious diseases and immunology. But in short order, he realized many opportunities to improve public health domestically and globally.

“The public service part of the job enriched the whole reason I came to the NIH,” he said. “That aspect of the work is present almost every day.”