Pioneering Pitt transplant surgeon Starzl receives Lasker Award

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Thomas E. Starzl, the University of Pittsburgh's pioneering liver transplant surgeon, has been named a recipient of the prestigious Lasker Award for clinical medical research along with British transplant pioneer Sir Roy Calne.

The Lasker awards often presage recognition by the Nobel Prize committee and have become known as "America's Nobels."

Dr. Starzl performed the first human liver transplants in Denver in 1963, but the first several surgeries failed, causing him to shut down the program for four years.

Eventually, as he improved both surgical techniques and found new drugs to prevent rejection of the organ by the body, his success rates began to improve.

He came to Pitt in the 1980s and is credited with transforming the medical school's reputation with his work, which remained at the forefront of different types of organ transplants and anti-rejection drugs.

In that decade, the discovery of the drug cyclosporine created the first steady successes in kidney, liver and heart transplants. Later in that decade, Dr. Starzl pioneered the use of an even more powerful anti-rejection drug, FK506, now known as tacrolimus, or Prograf.

He performed the first successful heart-liver transplant in 1984, and his introduction of tacrolimus led to the first successful intestinal transplants.

Before organ transplantation expanded widely throughout the United States, Pitt was one of the leading organ transplant centers in the world and was performing almost one liver transplant per day.

Dr. Calne, an emeritus professor at the University of Cambridge, followed a parallel path in England, pioneering liver transplants and anti-rejection drug research there.

The Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation, founded in 1942, will award the two doctors a shared prize of $250,000 at a ceremony in New York City on Sept. 21.

In its award announcement, the foundation said that Dr. Starzl and Dr. Calne "persevered on a bold course against a backdrop of doubt. By following glints of hope, they have brought new life to thousands of individuals."

A Lasker Foundation video on the award is here.

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Mark Roth: mroth@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1130.


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