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History of Transplants

The following is a reprint of information compiled and created by the Public Broadcasting Service, or PBS.

The first successful kidney transplant was performed in 1954 by Dr. Joseph Murray at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in Boston. Richard and Ronald Herrick were identical twins, but Richard was dying of kidney disease. Ronald donated one of his kidneys, and it was successfully transplanted into Richard. Because they were identical twins, the organ did not appear foreign to Richard’s body, which did not reject it.

There were ethical problems in this new procedure that bothered some doctors: To cure one patient, they had to harm another healthy person (by taking out a kidney). But this was the least of their stumbling blocks. How could they trick the body into not rejecting the new, healthy kidney that it needed? X-rays were tried, bombarding the patient’s entire body. The immune system was indeed knocked out, but in many cases the radiation killed the patient. In 1959, two more doctors in Boston discovered that certain drugs could suppress the immune system as effectively as radiation, but without the side effects of x-rays. One of these drugs was Imuran, originally formulated to fight leukemia.  In addition, in 1960, Peter Medawar introduced a way of typing tissue, just as blood typing had been discovered in 1900. By 1962, tissue typing and immune suppression with drugs was used for the first time in a human kidney transplant. Between 1954 and 1973, about 10,000 kidney transplants were performed.

A more effective immunosuppressant, cyclosporine, has been discovered. Cyclosporine, generally introduced in the 1980s, was a breakthrough in preventing rejection and opened a new era in transplant surgery. In 1986 alone, for example, nearly 9,000 kidney transplants were performed in the United States, with a greater than 85 percent survival rate for the first year.

Kidney transplantation surgically places a healthy kidney from another person into your body. The donated kidney does enough of the work that your two failed kidneys used to do to keep you healthy and symptom free.

How Kidney Transplantation Works

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