50 years ago, early organ transplants brought triumph and tragedy | Science News



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50 Years Ago

50 years ago, early organ transplants brought triumph and tragedy

Excerpt from the March 2, 1968 issue of Science News

7:00am, February 22, 2018
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LIVE LIVER  Advances in liver transplants mean that the donor no longer needs to be dead, and one liver may serve more than one recipient.

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Kidneys lead the field

While the drama of human heart transplants has grasped the public interest, kidney transplants are ahead in the field…. Although only three little girls are now surviving liver transplants, the liver is a promising field for replacement…. The donor, of course, must be dead; no one can live without his liver. — Science News, March 2, 1968


Kidney patients, who could receive organs from family members, had up to a 75 percent one-year survival rate in 1968. Liver recipients were less lucky, having to rely on unrelated, postmortem donations. Liver patients’ immune systems often attacked the new organ and one-year survival was a low 30 percent. Cyclosporine, an immune-suppressing drug available since 1983, has made a big difference. Now, about 75 percent of adults are alive three years after surgery, and children’s odds are even better. The liver is still a must-have organ, and the need for donor livers has climbed. Today, the options have expanded, with split-liver transplants and partial transplants from living donors.


Kidneys lead the fieldScience News. Vol. 93, March 2, 1968, p. 214.

T. Starzl et al. Homotransplantation of the liver in humans. Surgery, Gynecology and Obstetrics. Vol. 117, December 1963. PMCID: PMC2634660.

T. Starzl et al. Liver transplantation with use of cyclosporine A and prednisone. New England Journal of Medicine. Vol. 305, July 30, 1981. doi: 10.1056/NEJM198107303050507

R. Strong et al. Successful Liver Transplantation from a Living Donor to Her Son. New England Journal of Medicine. Vol. 322, May 24, 1990. doi: 10.1056/NEJM199005243222106

University of Pittsburgh. The transplanted organs: The liver. University Library System, University of Pittsburgh.

Center for Liver Disease and Transplantation. Living Donor Liver Transplantation FAQs. Columbia University Medical Center.

Health Resources & Services Administration. Timeline of Historical Events and Significant Milestones. organdonor.gov.

Health Resources & Services Administration. More than 30,000 transplants performed annually for first time in United States. Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network. January 9, 2016.

Further Reading

A. Witze. Luhan Yang strives to make pig organs safe for human use. Science News. Vol. 192, October 14, 2017, p. 26.

L. Biel. Organ waiting list policy benefits the wealthy, study charges. Science News Online. November 10, 2015.

N. Akpan. Supercooling makes livers for transplants last longer. Science News. Vol. 186, August 9, 2014, p. 18.

M. Rosen. Lab-grown liver raises hopes but draws criticism. Science News. Vol. 184, August 24, 2013, p. 16

N. Seppa. Prompt liver transplant boosts survival in heavy drinkers. Science News Online. November 10, 2011.

J. Raloff. Disease donations. Science News Online. September 24, 2010.

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