About Thomas Starzl, MD, PhD

Thomas E. Starzl, MD, PhD, transformed thousands of lives through advances in organ transplant that many thought weren't possible. He was a genius and a pioneer, but it was his passion for saving lives through transplant that defines him.

From his landmark success with immunosuppression until his death in 2017, Dr. Starzl worked to solve the many puzzles of organ transplantation.

Dr. Starzl: A Timeline in Transplant Breakthroughs

In 1981, Dr. Starzl came to Pittsburgh, Pa., to work at the School of Medicine. He led a team of surgeons who performed Pittsburgh’s first liver transplant. The team went on to do 30 liver transplants that year.

UPMC already had a kidney transplant program and was the site of Pa.’s first heart transplant.

But Dr. Starzl brought two crucial aspects to UPMC's transplant programs:

  • He launched the first liver transplant program in the nation for adults and children.
  • He found a new drug that would make transplant an accepted treatment for many diseases doctors couldn't cure at the time.

Performs the world's first liver transplant and studies organ rejection

Before UPMC, Dr. Starzl worked at the University of Colorado where he did the world’s first liver transplant.

He also did much of the lab research to learn the roadblocks to transplant success. The toughest challenge was rejection when the immune system attacks a donor organ as it would a foreign invader like bacteria.

By the mid-1960s, surgeons at U.C. and other advanced programs had the skills to transplant livers. But the anti-rejection drugs of the day weren’t effective enough.

The high doses of steroids to suppress the immune system could have severe side effects, such as:

  • Outward changes in the body (weight gain, bruising, skin rash, acne, swollen legs, puffy face).
  • An increased risk for infections and certain cancers.
  • Mood swings, depression, and other psychiatric problems.

Tests new anti-rejection drugs

Those barriers fell in 1979 with the approved new anti-rejection drug, cyclosporine. Dr. Starzl was one of the first doctors to test the new drug in humans.

The drug was a resounding improvement — first bettering liver transplant success rates and then heart and other solid organ transplants.

Finds a new drug to prevent organ rejection

While building the world’s largest liver transplant program and later directing the Pittsburgh Transplantation Institute, Dr. Starzl continued researching organ rejection.

In 1989, Dr. Starzl and his team announced the results of a trial of the new anti-rejection drug FK506. It was another leap forward.

The new drug:

  • Was 50 to 100 times more powerful than cyclosporine with fewer side effects.
  • Improved survival rates for all transplant recipients.
  • Made it possible to transplant organs that had vastly high rejection rates — such as the pancreas, lungs, and intestines.

Dr. Starzl retired from surgery and clinical service in 1991. But he continued his research and served as Distinguished Service Professor of Surgery at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

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