Dr. Thomas Rea, dermatologist behind leprosy treatment, dies at 86


Photo by Irene Fertik (USC News Mar 1997)

Dermatologist and leprologist Dr. Thomas Rea, whose discoveries led to treatments for Hansen's disease (HD or leprosy) has died at 86 years of age, according to a statement from the Division of Dermatology at the University of Southern California's (USC) Keck School of Medicine in Los Angeles.

His son, Steven Rea, confirmed that his father died in his home in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains on Feb. 7, 2016 after a battle with a form of blood cancer, reported the Los Angeles Times (Mar. 5, 2016).

Dr. Rea was head of the USC's Division of Dermatology between 1981 and 1996, during which time he worked closely with Dr. Robert Modlin, chief and professor of dermatology at The University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), to help identify the distinct CD4 and CD8 T cell populations which produce the key Th1 and Th2 cytokines at the site of disease in leprosy.

“This provided evidence that distinct functional T cells contribute to the pathogeneiss, resistance versus susceptibility to infection by the leprosy bacillus. These studies were published in the journal Nature and Science, becoming landmark papers in our understanding of the immune system,” stated Dr. David Peng, head of the Dermatology Department at The University of Southern California's (USC) Keck School of Medicine.

This led to the development of new treatments that rendered the disease non-contagious and helped eliminate the stigma that had long been associated with the condition, reported the LA Times.

Dr. Rea served as project director at the Hansen's disease clinic at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center from 1981 until 2012. He continued to work there until is retirement in 2015. Last year, the clinic was renamed the Thomas H. Rea Hansen's Disease Clinic at LAC+USC.

“Always soft spoken, he approached each patient with sincerity. He was a fierce advocate for those who entrusted themselves to his care,” said Dr. Pang in his statement.

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