Pioneer spirit: An impressive accolade for Starzl's transplant work

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A diagnosis of end-stage organ failure was once a death sentence. Early on, much of the medical establishment considered the idea of organ transplants impractical because of the certainty of tissue rejection.

Thomas Starzl wasn't deterred by the medical consensus. As a young surgeon and researcher at the University of Colorado, he performed the first liver transplants in the 1960s and some of the earliest kidney transplants.

It didn't happen overnight, but Dr. Starzl turned what was once experimental into a lifesaving routine adopted and practiced at hospitals all over the world. Hundreds of thousands of lives have been saved because of Dr. Starzl's determination to upend conventional assumptions about transplant surgery. In the 1980s, he brought his expertise to the University of Pittsburgh medical school, where he revolutionized the organ transplant program -- for both patients and surgeons in training.

Dr. Starzl also developed two immuno-suppressant drugs that kept patients' bodies from rejecting new organs. It was a huge breakthrough in a field he almost solely pioneered. For these and other innovations, Dr. Starzl, 86, and Sir Roy Calne, 81, of the University of Cambridge, who blazed a similar trail in Great Britain, will share the Lasker Foundation Clinical Medical Research Award for 2012.

The two will accept the $250,000 prize on Sept. 21 in New York. The Lasker awards are among the most prestigious in medicine and many call them "America's Nobel Prize."

Regardless of whether Dr. Starzl wins another high honor, there is no doubt about the value of his contribution to medicine and to extending lives. The Lasker award recognizes the debt the world owes a medical pioneer who refused to be governed by conventional wisdom.

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