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Longtime VA Researcher Receives Lasker-DeBakey Award

October 11, 2012

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 “Father of Human Transplantation” Honored

WASHINGTON – Dr. Thomas E. Starzl, a long-time VA researcher often called “the father of human transplantation,” has received one of the world’s top awards for science from the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation.

“We join the Lasker Foundation in celebrating Dr. Starzl’s lifetime of achievement in medical research,” said Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki. “Dr. Starzl’s work is a shining example of what our physician-researchers accomplish on behalf of Veterans and all Americans.”

Starzl retired from the Department of Veterans Affairs in 1998 after nearly 50 years with VA and its predecessor organization.  

He shares the Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award for 2012 with Roy Y. Calne of the University of Cambridge in England.  Both men were recognized for their development of liver transplantation, which has restored life to thousands of patients with end-stage liver disease.

A World War II naval Veteran, Starzl began his VA career in the 1950s as a resident surgeon in the Chicago VA Research Hospital, now part of the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center.

“Dr. Starzl’s selection as a recipient of the Lasker-DeBakey award is a well-deserved tribute to an exceptional career of service to Veterans and to all mankind,” said Dr. Robert Petzel, VA undersecretary for health. “Every successful transplant accomplished by VA surgeons, and by surgeons everywhere, is a tribute to his skill as a physician and a researcher. His work has changed the way in which medicine is practiced forever.”

In 1962, after joining the University of Colorado and the Denver VA Medical Center, Starzl conducted the first long-term successful kidney transplant at VA’s Denver facility.

A year later, in 1963, Starzl attempted the first human liver transplant.  Several subsequent operations proved that transplanted livers could remain viable.  Starzl worked to improve the procedure and began transplanting livers again in 1967.  Survival times began to exceed one year.  Today, the world’s longest survivor has carried her transplanted liver for more than four decades.

In 1981, Starzl joined what is now the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. The university has named one of its medical research buildings and its transplantation program in his honor.

The Lasker Awards are considered among the most respected science prizes in the world. The Lasker Foundation fosters the prevention and treatment of disease and disabilities by honoring excellence in basic and clinical science, by educating the public, and by advocating for support of medical research.

The awards carry an honorarium of $250,000 for each category and were presented at a ceremony on Sept. 21 in New York City.  Starzl is VA’s seventh Lasker Award recipient and is a 2004 recipient of the National Medal of Science.

Starzl’s other honors include VA’s William S. Middleton award in 1968, given for major achievements in areas of prime importance to VA’s research mission, and VA’s Diamond Award in 2009 for his pioneering lifetime achievements in the field of transplantation medicine. 

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