A Conversation with Donald M. Jensen, MD
In this issue, HCV Next asks five questions of Donald M. Jensen, MD, professor of medicine at the University of Chicago and director of the Center for Liver Diseases at University of Chicago Hospital.
Donald M. Jensen
Jensen attended medical school at the University of Illinois College of Medicine and then went on to complete his internship and residency at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. After fellowships at Rush University and King’s College Hospital in London, he returned to Rush to become the Joseph B. Capps Professor of Hepatology before joining the faculty at the University of Chicago 10 years ago. He has held leadership positions in the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases and the American Liver Foundation.
Jensen’s areas of expertise include liver diseases, with a particular focus on hepatitis C virus. In addition, he has conducted research on emerging treatments for HCV and other hepatic diseases and has been involved in hundreds of publications, including abstracts, book chapters and editorial work for medical journals.
What are your hobbies outside of practicing medicine?
I have always been a runner, going back to my high school days, and continue to run most days. It is such a part of my daily ritual that I feel vaguely incomplete on days that I don’t run. I have run numerous short races and six marathons, including the Boston Marathon twice. There is a group of 20 or so guys I run with 3 days a week. We have been running together for more than 20 years.
What was the defining moment that led you to your field?
I had an opportunity to do a hepatology research fellowship at King’s College Hospital in London in 1976-1977. The Liver Unit there in those days, under the direction of Roger Williams, MD, was a dynamic and exciting place to be. Along with Sir Roy Calne at Cambridge University, it was one of the first liver transplant programs in the world to have a dedicated acute liver failure unit, and one of the first to do early studies with fibroblast and leukocyte interferon for hepatitis B and non-A, non-B (NANB) hepatitis. The Liver Unit published 52 peer-reviewed papers during my first year there! For my research project, I developed a radioimmunoassay for antibodies against a liver-specific protein in the blood of patients with autoimmune hepatitis. This led to a first author publication in The New England Journal of Medicine in 1978, and I was hooked.
What area of research in hepatology most interests you?
There is little mystery that HCV therapy has been central to my career. Beginning with recombinant interferon trials for HBV and NANB in the mid-80s, to the discovery of HCV by Chiron in 1989, through multiple clinical trials in the 1990s and early 2000s, and finally to the miracle of direct-acting antiviral agents over the past decade, it has been a phenomenal ride. I have been awed by the courage of my patients who suffered through the interferon days, and now join them in their joy at being cured without interferon. The past 25 years have witnessed a remarkable success story — one with industry and academic centers cooperating to bring this miracle to millions of patients.
Have you ever been fortunate enough to witness or to have been part of medical history in the making?
Probably the most important advance in hepatology during my career has been the growth of liver transplantation from a single center in 1963 to hundreds of programs today. It has offered a new life to many with end-stage liver disease. In fact, many of my patients celebrate their transplant date as their new birthday. Hopefully, the new HCV therapies will avoid the necessity of this life-altering experience for many, but for those who will still need it, it has been, and will continue to be, a miracle.
What’s up next for you?
After more than 40 years in clinical academic medicine, I have decided to step off the treadmill and retire at the end of the year. It has been bittersweet saying goodbye to my patients, many of whom have been part of my family for over 20 years. There may be other challenges ahead, and perhaps some in hepatology, but it’s time to enjoy life a bit with my wife while we are healthy and active.