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September 13, 2012

Starzl wins Lasker award


Thomas E. Starzl has been named a recipient of the 2012 Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award by the Lasker Foundation for his pioneering work in the field of liver transplantation.

Starzl will share the prize with Roy Calne, who began Europe’s first liver transplantation program in 1968.

Starzl and Calne “persevered on a bold course against a backdrop of doubt,” the Lasker Foundation noted. “By following glints of hope, they have brought new life to thousands of individuals.”

Lasker_logoThe Lasker awards, sometimes characterized as the American Nobels because 81 Lasker laureates have gone on to win a Nobel Prize, include a shared honorarium of $250,000. The Lasker Awards are given in four categories — basic medical research, clinical medical research, public service and special achievement in medical science — to honor scientists who change the world in ways that save lives and benefit society.

Starzl, a Distinguished Service Professor of Surgery, is considered by many to be the “father of transplantation.”

He performed the first successful liver transplant in 1967. In subsequent decades, he trained a generation of surgeons to do the operation, mentoring physician-scientists in a quest to unravel the intertwined complexities of biomolecular factors, immunology, infection control and pharmacology, eventually applied in human clinical trials. He is credited with evolving kidney transplantation into an effective procedure, and performed the first heart-liver transplant in 1984.

He also introduced four commonly used immunosuppressive drugs for clinical transplantation, establishing a foundation for successful immune-system management and drug-regimen strategies in the transplantation of all kinds of organs. The discovery in 1992 by Starzl and colleagues of donor white blood cells in the tissues of long-term functioning organ transplant recipients unmasked a fundamental principle of transplantation tolerance, and he has sought advances in understanding antigens, which govern immunologic responsiveness.

“I am deeply honored to be acknowledged by the Lasker Foundation,” Starzl said in a statement.

“Liver transplantation and our expanding knowledge of the workings of immunological tolerance have helped save the lives of countless people, and it is immensely gratifying to have played a role in these efforts.”

Starzl joined Pitt’s School of Medicine in 1981 as a professor of surgery.

In the early 1980s, he showed that cyclosporine treatment increased the success rate of liver, kidney and heart transplantation, and opened up the possibility of lung and pancreas transplantation.

In 1986 he began exploring the value of another anti-rejection drug called FK506, or tacrolimus, which further improved survival rates and made intestinal transplant a reality.

In 1992 and 1993, Starzl’s team made medical history when surgeons performed two baboon-to-human liver transplants.

In 1996, the University of Pittsburgh Transplantation Institute, which Starzl directed for many years, was renamed in his honor, as was Pitt’s Biomedical Science Tower on the occasion of his 80th birthday in 2006.

In 2004, Starzl received the National Medal of Science, the nation’s highest scientific honor. He retired from clinical practice in 1991.

Other Pitt winners of Lasker Awards include faculty member Philip Hench in 1949, who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1950; faculty member Jonas Salk in 1956; alumnus Herbert W. Boyer in 1980; alumnus Paul Lauterbur in 1984, who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2003, and faculty member and alumnus Bernard Fisher in 1985.

Filed under: Feature,Volume 45 Issue 2

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