225 Years of Building Better Lives
header image
Share Your Story
Advances in Health and Medicine

Organ Transplantation Capital of the World


Established in 1985, Pitt’s Thomas E. Starzl Transplantation Institute (STI) is one of the world’s leading resources dedicated to helping people survive end-stage organ failure.


In 1963, two decades after performing the first constructive heart surgery, Henry “Hank” Bahnson joined Pitt as head of the Department of Surgery. Five years later, he performed the first heart transplant in Pittsburgh. Since then, STI surgeons have performed more than 17,000 transplants, establishing Pittsburgh as the organ transplantation capital of the world. Read about Bahnson’s career in Pitt Med (PDF). 


In 1981, Thomas E. Starzl left the University of Colorado for Pitt for one simple reason, he later explained—“because Hank was here. I didn’t know anything about this school other than the fact that if Hank Bahnson were here, and if I were in his department, then that would be the place to be.” At the time, organ transplantation was still controversial, but a new drug called cyclosporine showed signs of being able to suppress patients’ immune systems so their bodies would accept transplanted organs. The FDA approved clinical trials of cyclosporine at only three institutions, Pitt among them. Read about Starzl in Pitt Med (PDF): Part One and Part Two.


In taking up organ transplantation, Starzl entered one of medicine’s riskiest and most complex surgical arenas. Then, in Pittsburgh, he trained younger generations of surgeons to follow his lead. Because even successful transplants can drain patients’ lives, Starzl also transformed himself into a committed researcher, continuing to transplant organs while seeking to refine immunosuppressive therapies. Visit the STI Web site.


Transplantation research today largely focuses on immunosuppression—ensuring that patients’ bodies don’t reject their new livers, kidneys, hearts, and lungs. Professor George Mazariegos, who studied as a transplant fellow under Starzl during the 1990s, is a pediatric transplant surgeon at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC and collaborates with Pitt’s McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine to analyze immunologic characteristics of patients who have successfully withdrawn from immunosuppression. Explore the UPMC STI Web site.


STI Scientific Director Fadi Lakkis studies what Starzl called “chimerism”—re-engineering patients’ immune systems so they will treat donor organs as their own. Lakkis studies jellyfish, which have no immune response but yet accept “self” while rejecting “non-self” cells. His research could help explain why some patients’ immune systems are more hostile to transplanted organs than others. Read about Fadi Lakkis’ research in Pitt Med (PDF).