Dr. Thomas Rea, a dermatologist whose discoveries and research led to treatments that allowed leprosy patients to live without stigma, has died on Feb 7 at the age of 86. Dr. Rea died in his home in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains after losing the long battle against cancer.
Rea along with Dr. Robert Modlin found the role of the immune system in the development of skin lesions due to leprosy. For a long time researchers believed that the immune system is linked to leprosy signs and symptoms but never previously explained. Their discovery paved the way for new generation of leprosy management drugs.
‘Dr. Thomas Rea, father of leprosy treatment dies at 86 after losing battle against cancer.’
Hansen's disease (also known as leprosy) is an infectious disease caused by rod-shaped bacteria Mycobacterium leprae and Mycobacterium lepromatosis. The disease affects the peripheral nerves, skin, eyes, nasal mucosa and the upper respiratory tract. Diagnosis of leprosy based on clinical symptoms especially skin lesions that show sensory loss. Multidrug therapy was found to be effective in leprosy treatment.
"It was huge," said Dr. David Peng, head of the dermatology department at USC's Keck School of Medicine.The disease went from largely untreatable to "entirely controllable," he said. For years, Rea worked with patients who suffered from leprosy's stigma and felt they had to avoid human contact. "He'd come straight in and shake their hands, no gloves on, and it would empower them to realize that they could get better," Peng said.
Apart from the leprosy treatment breakthrough, Dr. Rea was also an early advocate of thalidomide drug which can be used for leprosy treatment. During the 90s thalidomide was banned by FDA because research revealed that the drug could cause severe birth defects. Dr. Rea made several appeals to the FDA to remove the drug from banned list and said that the drug can be safe if taken under supervision. FDA reconsidered its position and removed thalidomide from banned list.
Rea is survived by his wife, two sons and four grandchildren.