During almost 30 years of public service, Dr. Lawrence Deyton has worked for three major government organizations, and at each stop along the way has made a huge difference in improving public health and the lives of Americans.
A first-rate researcher, clinician and administrative leader, Deyton has played an influential role at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in fighting AIDS, at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) tackling life-threatening infections such as HIV and hepatitis C, and at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) seeking to reduce smoking and limit its damaging health effects.
“His mission in life is to help people and that is exactly what he has done,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). “Effective and intelligent are two words that describe Dr. Deyton.”
Dr. Margaret Hamburg, the commissioner of the FDA, described Deyton as “dedicated and visionary,” pointing to accomplishments that include the establishment of groundbreaking community-based programs for clinical AIDS research at NIH that helped an under-served population that was being devastated at the beginning of the epidemic.
During the late 1980s and the 1990s, Deyton helped lead more than 200 NIH-funded clinical trials of new HIV therapeutics, which included collaborations with pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, foreign governments and AIDS advocacy organizations. In the process, he brought thousands of patients with HIV/AIDS into the clinical trials that had previously been excluded, including African Americans, drug users and those with little or no access to health care.
“I cannot say how cutting-edge his approach was at the time,” said Hamburg, “It brought research to communities that needed it. He understood the disconnect between patients and research, and he found a new way to do testing and develop products.”
Years earlier, Deyton was a founder of the Whitman-Walker Clinic, which became the hub for the treatment of people with HIV/AIDS in the Washington, D.C. area. The clinic was at the forefront of the AIDS epidemic, and today is a robust organization that annually treats more than 10,000 patients.
Deyton moved to the VA in 1998, where he created nationwide high quality HIV/AIDS treatment programs and developed the nation’s most comprehensive screening, testing and treatment initiative for hepatitis C to help veterans at risk or living with those infections. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 3.2 million people in the U.S. have chronic hepatitis C, and that one in five die from the infection that causes liver disease and cirrhosis. There are about 17,000 new cases every year, according to the CDC.
“His research and clinical work to mitigate infectious diseases like HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C has helped save countless lives,” said Kimberly Elliot, an associate director for program coordination at the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products.
Dr. Victoria Davey, the VA’s chief public health and environmental hazards officer, said Deyton is not only a skilled administrator who has successfully built and managed important and complex programs, but he is a compassionate physician who brings a personal touch to every endeavor.
When he was running the HIV/AIDS clinical trials at NIH, Davey said, he would go out of his way to visit patients who were having a rough time with the disease or who did not have family nearby. “He truly cares about others and his patients,” she said.
While at the VA, Deyton also crafted departmental and government-wide strategies to respond to health threats from emerging infectious diseases like SARS, pandemic influenza and potential bio-terror attacks. He also developed a successful program that lowered smoking rates of veterans.
“When I came to the VA, veterans smoked 10 percent more than the national average,” said Deyton. “Through increased awareness among veterans and their health care providers and effective use of VA’s electronic health record’s reminder system, we were able to significantly reduce smoking among veterans.”
Appointed as the first director of the FDA’s Center for Tobacco products in 2009, Deyton now is working to protect young people from the dangers of tobacco use and to reduce tobacco-related disease, suffering and death.
He is seeking to reverse the negative health consequences of smoking by issuing regulations to require effective, new, graphic health warning labels on cigarette packages and in cigarette advertising. He also has directed efforts to prohibit tobacco manufacturers from using misleading descriptors like “light,” “low” and “mild.”
Known to friends by his childhood nickname of “Bopper,” Deyton said he has always felt a strong commitment to public service, and is “blessed to have held positions where I can help others.” He noted that he comes from a family of clinicians and veterans, and found working at the VA very fulfilling.
In his current position, Deyton said, he is committed to reducing the health consequences of tobacco use and saving lives.
“Tobacco use is the leading preventable cause of disease and death in the United States, so having a chance to help with this health issue was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up,” he said.
Hamburg, the FDA commissioner, said Deyton’s career has been dedicated to the well-being of Americans. To this day, she said, he still sees patients at a veterans’ clinic every Friday.
“I do not know many professionals in his position that would do that,” she said. “He cares.”