Vision and persistence in developing liver transplantation

A concise perspective article examines the history and challenges of developing liver transplantation into an accepted treatment for end-stage liver disease (NEJM 2012; 367: 1483-86).

Key points:

  • Thomas Starzl 1st attempted liver transplant in 1963.  The 3-year-old boy with biliary atresia did not survive the operation; the next 5 attempts were failures as well with the longest survivor lasting only 23 days.  A moratorium of nearly 4 years was placed after these initial failures.
  • Improvements in immunosuppression were a key advance, including antilymphocyte serum in 1966.  During the 1970s, 70% of liver-allograft recipients died shortly after surgery.
  • Brain death concept, accepted in 1968, allowed for better donor organs (less ischemia)
  • Key immunosuppression advance was in 1979 when Roy Calne (Cambridge) reported the use of cyclosporin for organ transplantation.  Between 1980-81, 70% (n=40) of Starzl’s patients survived more than one year.
  • In 1983, National Institutes of Health at a consensus conference concluded that liver transplantation should be considered a ‘clinically applicable, lifesaving procedure.’
  • Other improvements, such as better organ procurement protocols and preservation along with further improvements in immunosuppression have helped improve 1-year and 5-year survival rates to climb, >85% and >70% respectively in 2010.
  • In 2010, 6291 patients underwent liver transplantation.
  • Remaining challenges include inadequate organ supply, recurrent primary hepatic disease (eg. hepatitis C), adverse drug effects, and post-transplantation complications.

The persistence and vision of Starzl and Calne has been recognized with the Lasker-Debakey Award (Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award – Wikipedia, the …).

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