Original Post in The Bay Area Reporter By: Matthew S. Bajko
A new endowment named in honor of the pioneering HIV physician Dr. Marcus Conant aims to help educate future generations of health care providers interested in caring for people living with HIV and LGBTQ individuals. It has a particular focus on those entering the field of HIV dermatology, which Conant had specialized in at his now-closed practice in San Francisco.
"It is quite an honor. It is really very nice," Conant, 87, told the Bay Area Reporter in his first media interview about the endowment.
Conant, a gay man, had earned his medical degree from Duke University in 1961 and by the 1970s was practicing in San Francisco. In 1981, he was one of the first physicians in the city to diagnose and treat AIDS patients.
He early on identified that many of his patients were infected with Kaposi's sarcoma, a cancerous disease that causes tumor-like lesions on the skin. In 1982, Conant founded the Kaposi's Research and Education Fund, a nonprofit organization that would later become the San Francisco AIDS Foundation.
Over the years Conant cared for nearly 8,000 people living with HIV or AIDS, until he shuttered his Conant Medical Group in 2010 due to rising costs and complications caused by health insurance companies, as the Bay Area Reporter previously reported.
He was also a professor at the University of California Medical Center in San Francisco and authored or co-authored more than 70 publications on how to treat AIDS. The UCSF Medical Center's Department of Dermatology established The Marcus Conant, MD, Endowment for HIV Dermatology and LGBTQ Health last fall. Fundraising is ongoing for it, with the goal of raising well into the six-figures to fund the endowment in perpetuity.
"We want to foster a pipeline of physicians and researchers who are skilled in the work related to LGBT health issues, so this endowment will support the training of medical students and trainee doctors to conduct research that will ultimately hopefully lead to increased awareness and treatment of skin disease in the community," said Dr. Kieron Leslie, a dermatologist who has practiced at UCSF Health for 18 years. "He is a towering figure in our community. We are so thrilled and pleased he is willing to partner with us on this endeavor."
Leslie, 52, who is gay, trained in his native United Kingdom in dermatology, infectious diseases and HIV. He moved to San Francisco in 2005 when he joined the dermatology faculty at UCSF.
Several years ago he came up with the idea of founding an endowment for medical students interested in HIV dermatology. It grew out of his working with aspiring dermatologists in the summer, which he was able to secure some funding for from his department to support.
"These students have done fantastic work and been published in important journals. They are climbing up through medical school and doing really well," said Leslie. "All will be applying to become dermatologists. I thought wouldn't it be fantastic to have something focused that would perpetually fund students in this endeavor."
He could think of no one better to name the endowment after than Conant, someone he has admired throughout his medical career and knows professionally but isn't a close friend. Leslie approached Conant about naming the endowment in his honor before officially launching it.
"With endowments you want to honor someone. I couldn't think of someone greater than Dr. Conant," said Leslie, who graduated medical school in 1996. "In our field he is a titan."
Move to New York City
After shuttering his practice Conant moved to New York City in 2019. He now splits his time between Manhattan and Washington, D.C. where he works for American Gene Technologies as its chief medical officer, assisting with its effort to use gene therapy to cure HIV.
The company recently had a successful trial in seven patients and is readying to do a second trial with 24 patients by next year, with some enrolled from San Francisco.
"It looks very promising," said Conant, who plans to work until he turns 95 years old.
In a statement Jeff Galvin, CEO and founder of American Gene Technologies, praised UCSF for establishing the endowment in honor of Conant.
"His commitment helped find the first effective treatments that prevented AIDS and restored hope to millions. This scholarship is a fitting legacy to his life-long commitment to fighting HIV and AIDS, and ensures that there will be much more progress to come," stated Galvin.
Should the fundraising effort for the Conant endowment be successful — UCSF development officials declined to disclose the exact amount raised so far or what their target goal is — the aim is to select at least two students each year to be financially supported for a number of months in a mentored research program. Leslie would like to have the first students selected for what he is calling the Dr. Marcus Conant fellows next year.
"The level of the endowment will dictate what you can do," said Leslie, specifying that the money raised "is not for faculty salary. It is literally directed toward supporting students and training doctors to do research for diseases that affect our community."
It is believed to be the first endowment that focuses on HIV dermatology.
"I am not aware of other university programs that have a LGBT focus as an endowment. If there are, I am not aware of them," said Leslie.
Conant also told the B.A.R. the UCSF endowment is the first of its kind specifically focused on HIV dermatology. It is necessary in a world that will continue to face global health crises, such as the COVID pandemic that broke out in 2020, said Conant.
"We should have programs like this program that will fund the studying of diseases in populations that are emergent so we can be prepared for the next epidemic," argued Conant.
These days it is rare to hear about people living with HIV or AIDS infected with Kaposi's sarcoma. Nonetheless, skin diseases continue to impact such patients, from syphilis and skin cancers to the recent outbreak of mpox.
"I think the community is always at risk of diseases that can be stigmatizing and, frankly, need the best treatment and care we can offer," said Leslie. "It is why at the UCSF Department of Dermatology, we focus a lot on these diseases and their effects on the community."
One ongoing issue for many of the HIV patients he sees is HPV, the human papillomavirus that causes warts in those infected. There is no cure for it, though nowadays young girls and boys can receive a vaccine that prevents most HPV strains.
"We see a lot of warts. Definitely, if you are living with HIV, you are at increased risk of warts and can be resistant to therapy," noted Leslie.
And Conant noted that "here we are in the 21st century" without having discovered vaccines for other sexually transmitted diseases like syphilis and gonorrhea.
"There is no vaccine for any STDs," said Conant, adding that research is also still needed into the transmission of Kaposi's sarcoma. "It was never really determined how the disease is transmitted. How does it get from one guy to another? So there is still work to be done."
Anyone interested in donating to the fellowship can do so online.