Dr. Thomas Starzl who performed the first successful liver transplant, died Saturday at the age of 90. The University of Pittsburgh made the announcement on behalf of Starzl’s family.

Thanks to Starzl’s research and efforts, millions of lives have been saved. He was who pioneered liver transplant surgery in 1960’s. As well, he was a leading researcher of the anti-rejection drugs. He died peacefully at his home in Pittsburgh after a long successful career.

Thanks to Starzl’s research and efforts, millions of lives have been saved. Image credit: UPMC Youtube Channel

“The number of lives which were, and continue to be transformed, by Dr. Starzl’s groundbreaking work are immeasurable,” said Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald who called Starzl “a true Pittsburgh icon and hero”

Starzl is regarded as the father of transplantation

Dr. Thomas Starzl pioneered liver transplant surgery in the 60s. He performed the world’s first liver transplant in 1963 and the world’s first successful liver transplant in 1967. He also pioneered kidney transplants from cadavers. Starzz tried to do the process using identical twins and later other blood relatives and donors.

His development of cyclosporine (anti-rejection drug) in combination with steroids turned out to be the solution for organ rejection, which gave patients the chance of surviving an, otherwise fatal, organ failure. Without a doubt, he is regarded as the father of transplantation and thanks to his efforts millions of lives will continue to be saved in similar procedures.

“We regard him as the father of transplantation,” said Dr. Abhinav Humar, clinical director of the Thomas E. Starzl Transplantation Institute. “His legacy in transplantation is hard to put into words — it’s really immense.

Dr. Thomas Starzl pioneered liver transplant surgery in the 60s. Image credit: Gene J. Puskar / Associated Press / Los Angeles Times

A breakthrough research

Starzl was born in March 1926 in LeMars, Iowa. His mother was a nurse while his father was a science fiction writer. Starzl’s interest in research started out with a liver operation he assisted while he was a resident student at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.

He performed the world’s first liver transplant while he was in Denver. The patient made it through the procedure but didn’t survive for long. The same happened with the next four patients. Four years later, in 1967, and after developing his research on anti-rejection drugs, Starzl was able to carry out a successful surgery. The patient survived for a year with the new liver.

While he was at the University of Colorado, he performed 175 liver transplants with a success rate ranging between 30 and 50 percent. Starzl was Chairman of Surgery at the University Of Colorado School Of Medicine from 1972 until 1980. Then he arrived, on New Year’s Eve, to the University of Pittsburgh. The University of California wanted Dr. Starzl to work with them too, but Starzl opted for Pittsburgh, where the surgery department was headed by Dr. Henry Bahnson, who had been his best man at his first wedding.

He started in Pittsburgh as professor of surgery. Then he served as chief of transplant services at the UPMC. In 1991, he was appointed Director of the University of Pittsburgh Transplantation Institute. In 1996, the Institute was renamed after him. He continued as Director, while he pursued his research on a process called chimerism, based on a paper he wrote in 1992 where he stated that new organs and the old ones learn to coexist without immunosuppression drugs.

He also demonstrated that “soldier cells” go from the transplanted organ to the rest of the body, becoming “missionary cells.” They find new homes to help the body accept the foreign organ.

In the 90’s, thanks to Starzl’s research on alternative livers, these organs were transplanted from baboons into humans. The research on such animal-to-human procedures continues. Research believe it might be possible with pigs instead of primates.

As well, he helped develop the use of experimental antirejection drug FK506 – discovered in a soul sample by Japanese researchers- which made it possible to do transplantation of multiple organs, including the small intestine. This research was conducted alongside Dr. John Fung his protégé at UPMC and successor as director of transplant surgery.

Starzl: ‘I was striving for liberation my whole life’

In Starzl’s 1992 autobiography “The Puzzle People: Memoirs of a Transplant Surgeon,” he admits he actually hated performing surgeries and that he was sickened with fear every time he had to carry out an operation.

Starzl decided to put his scalpel away in 1990 when he was 60. Soon after one of his patients, Stormie Jones died. Stormie was a 14-year-old girl from White Settlement, Texas. She managed to live six years after she received a new heart and liver. However, she needed a second liver in 1990. Starzl made the operation, but she died nine months after that. Her death affected the doctor deeply. As well, this retirement from the operating room was due in part to a laser accident five years earlier, that affected his vision.

“It is true that transplant surgeons saved patients, but the patients rescued us in turn and gave meaning to what we did, or tried to,” Starzl once wrote.

Starzl is survived by his 36-year-old wife, Joy, his son and grandson.

Source: NY Daily News