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Thomas E. Starzl, MD, PhD
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Thomas  E.  Starzl, MD, PhD

​Thomas E. Starzl, MD, PhD, is known to most as the “Father of Transplantation” and a thinker who has been, and continues to be, well ahead of his time. By laying the groundwork for a new field of medicine, throughout his career he has continued to make among the most significant landmark advancements in medicine and science - from identifying better ways to control organ rejection to offering novel approaches that enhance understanding of disease processes. In recent years, he has made important discoveries about tolerance, which have completely changed the conventional paradigms of transplant immunology.

Retired from clinical and surgical service since 1991, Dr. Starzl still devotes his time to research endeavors and remains active as Distinguished Service Professor of Surgery at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and with the program named in his honor: the Thomas E. Starzl Transplantation Institute of the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC).

Dr. Starzl was born March 11, 1926 in LeMars, Iowa, the son of a newspaper editor. He attended Westminster College in Fulton, Mo., where he earned his bachelor's degree in biology. He went on to the Northwestern University Medical School in Chicago, where in 1950 he received a master's degree in anatomy and in 1952 earned both a doctoral degree in neurophysiology and a medical degree with distinction.

Following postgraduate work at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Dr. Starzl pursued his interest in surgery and research with a fellowship and residencies at Johns Hopkins, the University of Miami and the Veterans Administration Research Hospital in Chicago. He was a Markle Scholar in Medical Science, a distinguished honor bestowed annually to a small group of exceptionally promising young physicians in academic medicine. Dr. Starzl served on the faculty of Northwestern University from 1958 to 1961 and joined the University of Colorado School of Medicine as an associate professor in surgery in 1962. He was promoted to professor in 1964 and served as chairman of the department of surgery from 1972 to 1980.

Despite prevailing worldwide pessimism regarding the ability to transplant allogenic (non-identical) human kidneys, Dr. Starzl successfully combined azathioprine (Imuran) and corticosteroids in allogenic kidney transplants performed in 1962 and 1963, leading to the largest series of kidney transplants and invigorating clinical attempts throughout the world. The lessons learned from kidney transplantation and discoveries made by his team on liver physiology led Dr. Starzl to perform the world's first human liver transplant in 1963 and the first successful liver transplant in 1967 both at the University of Colorado. Dr. Starzl and his transplant team went on to perform approximately 1,000 kidney and 200 liver transplants at Colorado General and Denver Veterans Administration hospitals.

In addition to developing azathioprine and corticosteroid immunosuppression, Dr. Starzl subsequently introduced anti-lymphocyte globulin and cyclosporine. It was this development in 1980 that advanced transplantation from an experimental procedure to an accepted form of treatment for patients with end-stage liver, kidney and heart disease. It also allowed surgeons to explore the feasibility of transplanting other organs, such as the pancreas and lung.

Dr. Starzl joined the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine as professor of surgery in 1981. Until 1991, he served as chief of transplantation services at Presbyterian University Hospital (now UPMC Presbyterian), Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh and the Veterans Administration Hospital in Pittsburgh, overseeing the largest and busiest transplant program in the world. He then assumed the title of director of the University of Pittsburgh Transplantation Institute, a post that permitted his full attention to research. In 1996, the Institute was renamed in his honor. He now holds the title of director emeritus.

In 1989, Dr. Starzl announced the first-time use of a more effective anti-rejection agent, FK506 (tacrolimus), presaging other significant advancements in transplant medicine, whereby patient and graft survival rates for liver and other organ transplants greatly improved and successful clinical intestine transplantation, previously fraught with unacceptably high rejection rates, was made possible for the first time. Dr. Starzl and his team at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center had been instrumental in the development of the drug since 1986; in 1994, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the drug for clinical use.

Under Dr. Starzl’s leadership, the Thomas E. Starzl Transplantation Institute also has researched the feasibility of cross-species, or xenotransplantation, for addressing the chronic shortage of human organs. In 1992 and 1993, Dr. Starzl's team made medical history when surgeons performed two baboon-to-human liver transplants. Dr. Starzl himself had performed six baboon-to-human kidney transplants in 1963 and 1964 and the world's first chimpanzee liver xenotransplants in three children between 1969 and 1974.

A major focus of Dr. Starzl's current research is transplant tolerance and chimerism—the coexistence of donor and recipient cells—which has already offered significant contributions to the understanding of transplant immunology, particularly with respect to how and why organs are accepted.

Among the more than 200 awards and honors bestowed to Dr. Starzl are: the David M. Hume Memorial Award from the National Kidney Foundation for furthering the understanding of kidney diseases, kidney transplantation and the physiology of the kidney; the Brookdale Award in Medicine presented by the American Medical Association Board of Trustees and the Brookdale Foundation for significant contributions to the field of clinical medicine, teaching and research; the Bigelow Medal from the Boston Surgical Society; the City of Medicine Award; the Medallion for Scientific Achievement presented by the American Surgical Association; the William Beaumont Prize from the American Gastroenterological Association for outstanding contributions to the field and practice of gastroenterology; the Peter Medawar Prize of The Transplant Society; the Jacobson Innovation Award of the American College of Surgeons; the 1998 Lannelongue International Medal, which is awarded every five years by the Academie Nationale De Chirurgie (National Academy of Surgery, France); the 2001 King Faisal International Prize for Medicine; the Rhoads Medal of the American Philosophical Society; the 2002 Prince Mahidol Award; the 2004 Presidential National Medal of Science; and 24 honorary doctorates from universities in the United States and abroad.

Dr. Starzl's national and international endeavors include membership in more than 60 professional and scientific organizations, including election as president of The Transplantation Society, founding president of the American Society of Transplant Surgeons and founding president of the Transplant Recipients International Organization. In 1992, he was inducted as one of only five American members into the prestigious National French Academy of Medicine. A sought-after speaker, Dr. Starzl has given more than 1,300 presentations at major meetings throughout the world. He belongs to the editorial boards of 40 professional publications and has authored or co-authored more than 2,200 scientific articles, four books and 300 book chapters.

Dr. Starzl has earned additional distinctions. According to the Institute for Scientific Information (ISI), Dr. Starzl once averaged one paper every 7.3 days, making him one of the most prolific scientists in the world. In 1999, ISI identified Dr. Starzl as the most cited scientist in the field of clinical medicine, a measure of his work's lasting influence and utility. The book, 1,000 Years, 1,000 People: Ranking the Men and Women Who Shaped the Millennium, placed Dr. Starzl 213th on its list of those whose contributions have significantly influenced history's progress.

Dr. Starzl's autobiography, The Puzzle People: Memoirs of a Transplant Surgeon, was published by the University of Pittsburgh Press in 1992. Translations have been published in Italian, Japanese, Korean and Spanish. All author's royalties are donated to the Transplant Recipients International Organization.


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