Organ transplants have become virtually commonplace in the 21st century, but it literally took millennia for such procedures to be perfected.
The concept of organ transplantation can be traced back to ancient times, with the first recorded attempt at a skin graft dating back to 3000 BCE in India. Over 4500 years passed before someone actually tried again.
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Here are some highlights the major developments in organ transplants over the past 500 years:
1500s, France – Skin grafting is attempted (again)
In the 16th century, a French physician named Ambroise Paré attempted to perform a skin graft on a patient whose nose had been cut off, but the procedure was unsuccessful.
1905, Chicago, USA – First animal heart transplant is performed
In 1905, surgeons Alexis Carrel and Charles Guthrie successfully ran experiments on heart transplants in dogs, getting us one step closer to human organ transplants.
1905, Austria – First successful corneal transplant
Meanwhile, in Austria, Eduart Zirm contributed to further experimentation and success in tissue transplantation when he performed the first successful corneal transplant.
1954, Boston, USA – First successful major organ transplant
It wasn’t until the discovery of immunosuppressant drugs in the 1950s that organ transplantation became a viable option for treating end-stage organ disease. In 1954, the first successful kidney transplant was performed by a team of surgeons led by Dr. Joseph Murray at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. The patient, a 23-year-old man with end-stage kidney disease, received a kidney from his identical twin brother. It was a near-perfect match and did not trigger an immune response.
1967–68, South Africa and United States – First heart transplants
The success of the first kidney transplant paved the way for further advances in the field of organ transplantation. On December 3, 1967, Dr. Christiaan Barnard, a South African surgeon, surprised the entire world when he gave a dying grocer a new heart. Only a month later, on January 6, 1968, Dr. Norman Shumway and his team at Stanford University performed the first successful adult-to-adult transplant of its kind in the United States. Both patients died within three weeks.
1983, Toronto, Canada – The first successful lung transplant
Patient Tom Hall received a donor lung in November 1983, when the Toronto Lung Transplant Group was the first to achieve long-term success after isolated lung transplantation.
In the decades that followed, organ transplantation continued to evolve and improve. Today, it’s a common and lifesaving procedure, with thousands of transplants performed every year around the world. Over 35,000 transplants were performed in the United States alone in 2020. But despite much success, there are still many challenges and limitations to the field, including a shortage of donor organs and the risk of rejection and infection.
The rapid progress in organ transplants has been accompanied by a dark side: the black market in these procedures.
Efforts are underway to address these challenges through advances in tissue engineering, stem cell research, and other areas of regenerative medicine. As technology and medical knowledge continue to advance, so will the future of organ transplantation – and the potential to save countless people and improve their quality of life.