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November 23, 2005

Starzl awarded National Medal of Science

Pitt transplant pioneer Thomas E. Starzl has been selected by President George W. Bush to receive the 2004 National Medal of Science, the nation’s highest scientific honor.

Starzl, distinguished service professor of surgery at Pitt’s School of Medicine and director emeritus of the Thomas E. Starzl Transplantation Institute at UPMC, and seven other medal laureates will receive the awards in a White House ceremony at a date to be determined.

Starzl told the University Times, “The medal was most welcome. It was not, however, a personal distinction, but rather the recognition of a body of institutional work. The individuals whose names should adorn the medal are too numerous to list. Moreover, the fertile soil of the University of Pittsburgh did not exist in any other city or institution.”

Established by Congress in 1959, the National Medal of Science is awarded annually by the U.S. president to individuals “deserving of special recognition for their outstanding contributions to knowledge” in the fields of behavioral and social sciences, biology, chemistry, engineering, mathematics and physics.

Starzl’s groundbreaking work in organ transplantation has spanned more than four decades and has earned Starzl the label “father of transplantation.”

In 1963, Starzl performed the world’s first liver transplant while at the University of Colorado. Four years later, he performed the first successful liver transplant.

In 1980, he introduced the anti-rejection medications anti-lymphocyte globulin and cyclosporine, which became the accepted transplant regimen for patients with liver, kidney and heart failure.

In 1981, Starzl joined Pitt’s medical school as professor of surgery and led the team of surgeons who performed the city’s first liver transplant, launching the University’s liver transplant program — the only one in the nation at the time.

In 1989, Starzl introduced the anti-rejection medication FK506, which markedly increased survival rates and led the way to other successful types of organ transplants.

Until 1991, he served as chief of transplantation services at UPMC Presbyterian, Children’s Hospital and the Veterans Administration Hospital, overseeing the largest and busiest transplant program in the world. He then assumed the title of director of the University of Pittsburgh Transplantation Institute. In 1996, the institute was renamed in his honor.

“Dr. Starzl’s selection for this high honor is a well-deserved tribute to a life characterized by high achievement and extraordinary impact,” said Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg. “He has been called the greatest surgeon of the 20th century. He first led pioneering efforts that utilized anti-rejection drugs to make human organ transplantation possible and then, in an amazing development, led equally significant research efforts to decrease the long-term dependency of organ recipients on those same drugs. What he has contributed to the cause of human health is immeasurable.”

Among the more than 175 awards and honors bestowed on Starzl are: the Hume Memorial Award from the National Kidney Foundation; the Brookdale Award in Medicine presented by the American Medical Association and the Brookdale Foundation; the 1991 Distinguished Service Award presented by the American Liver Foundation; the Beaumont Prize from the American Gastroenterological Association; the 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 France’s Academie Nationale de Chirurgie, and the 2001 King Faisal International Prize for Medicine.

The book, “1,000 Years, 1,000 People: Ranking the Men and Women Who Shaped the Millennium,” placed Starzl at 213th on its list of those whose contributions have influenced history’s progress significantly.

Starzl remains active in research, mapping the relationship between donor and recipient cells and developing new therapeutic strategies to achieve immune tolerance after transplantation with a much lower risk of side effects from immunosuppressive therapy.

“Dr. Starzl spearheaded the transformation of organ transplantation from an intriguing research concept to a relatively routine clinical reality, laying the groundwork for an entirely new field of medicine,” said Arthur S. Levine, senior vice chancellor for Health Sciences and dean of the Pitt School of Medicine.

—Peter Hart

Filed under: Feature,Volume 38 Issue 7

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