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Medical 'father of modern transplantation' Thomas Starzl dies

Thomas Starzl conducted and performed the first liver transplants and developed medication to prevent organ rejection. He also led the way for research into animal-to-human organ transplantation.

Dr. Thomas Starzl, who made organ transplantation a mainstream surgery, died at his home on Saturday according to the University of Pittsburgh, where he served as a member of its faculty. Starzl was 90.

Starzl started organ transplant research in the 1950's as a resident at Johns Hopkins Hospital after a liver operation led to a series of experiments on dogs to determine whether diabetes originated in the liver. While the experiments proved him wrong, it started him on a path to start working on solid organ transplant surgery, which was still in its infancy.

Starzl performed the world's first human liver transplant in 1963 and the first successful transplant in 1967 at the University of Colorado. Starzl improved the transplant process to allow identical twins and eventually other blood relatives to donate organs to one another. Starzl also worked in kidney transplantation and many thousands of lives have been saved with the procedures.

"We regard (Starzl) as the father of transplantation. His legacy in transplantation is hard to put into words – it's really immense," said Dr. Abhinav Humar, clinical director of the Thomas E. Starzl Transplantation Institute at the University of Pittsburgh.

Preventing organ rejection

While transplants offered patients a temporary lifeline, more needed to be done to prevent the body from rejecting the transplanted organ. Starzl developed azathioprine and a combination of other steroids to ward off potential rejection for patients.

Starzl also started research on transplanting livers from baboons into humans in the early 1990's at the University of Pittsburgh. There is still research on transplanting organs from animals to humans, but researchers are primarily focusing on transplanting organs from pigs into humans and using genetic engineering to prevent acute rejection, according to Humar.

Starzl retired from performing transplants in 1991 but stayed at the University of Pittsburgh as a Distinguished Service Professor and the director of the University of Pittsburgh Transplantation Institute. A research building on the University of Pittsburgh was named after him and the university transplantation institute was named after him in 1996.

"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 do," Starzl once wrote.

Starzl is survived by his wife, a son and a grandchild.

kbd/jm (AP, dpa)