Starzl accepts award for transplant work

Surgeon shares recognition with British researcher Calne


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NEW YORK -- When organ transplant pioneers Thomas Starzl of Pittsburgh and Sir Roy Calne of Cambridge, England, were introduced here Friday, they were described as "two closely matched rivals" who symbolized the "best in human achievement."

But when the two chatted after receiving this year's Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award, they said they considered each other not opponents, but members of the same team, blazing a path on kidney and liver transplants in their two countries at a time when the failure rates were still high and opposition from the medical establishment was often fierce.

Dr. Starzl and Dr. Calne received thunderous applause from the crowd of doctors, scientists, friends and family who attended the Lasker Award ceremonies in an ornate dining room at the Pierre Hotel.

Besides their award, the Lasker Foundation also gave its Basic Medical Research Award to Michael Sheetz, James Spudich and Ronald Vale for fundamental discoveries in how muscles work and nerve impulses are transmitted, and gave its Special Achievement Award to Donald Brown and Tom Maniatis for their research and support for younger scientists.

The Lasker Awards are often seen as a precursor to the Nobel Prize. In the history of the awards, 81 recipients have gone on to become Nobel laureates.

After the ceremony, Dr. Starzl, 86, said he considered his transplant program and that of Dr. Calne, 81, as a "transatlantic alliance, and I believe neither of our programs could have survived without the existence of the other."

The reason? In the 1960s and 1970s, he said, "the failure rate [of liver transplants] was too high and the procedure itself was considered macabre by many people."

Dr. Calne said he and Dr. Starzl often talked during those years, mainly to "discuss how to make the operations safer and go over what mistakes we had made and how to avoid them the next time. That interaction was very important because it boosted our morale."

In describing the reasons for their award, Craig Thompson, the president of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, peppered his references with sports analogies.

Like Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris on the New York Yankees, or the Los Angeles Lakers' Earvin Johnson and the Boston Celtics' Larry Bird, Dr. Thompson said, Dr. Starzl and Dr. Calne "pushed each other to do something once believed to be impossible."

Together, the two doctors introduced the anti-rejection drugs that turned transplants from a rare, risky procedure into an almost commonplace operation.

The biggest breakthrough came in the 1980s. Within one year of introducing cyclosporine for liver transplant patients in 1982, Dr. Thompson said, Dr. Starzl's survival rate for patients in Pittsburgh went from 25 percent after one year to 75 percent, and a year later, U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop said the surgery was no longer to be considered experimental, opening the door to insurance coverage.

One of Dr. Starzl's patients, Renee Williams of Highland Park, a 28-year-old privacy attorney with Highmark, was introduced at the luncheon. She received a liver when she was 14 months old, and today is completely free of immunosuppressants.

In accepting the award, Dr. Starzl said that one reason the Lasker Foundation might never have recognized organ transplants until this year is because it is so hard to identify which doctors should be honored, since "transplantation services are not provided by individuals. The team is what counts, and it is on behalf of my clinical and research teams that I accept this prize."

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


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