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The March of Transplants

From xenotransplantation to treating organ rejection with antibodies to chimerism, scientists have been trying to improve organ transplantation for more than a century.

By Charles Slack // The MGH Research Issue 2011


Whole-organ xenotransplantation (transplants between species) begins in earnest when a French doctor transplants a pig kidney into a woman’s arm. It fails.

coconut grove fire



Fire sweeps through the Cocoanut Grove nightclub in Boston, killing 492 people and leaving scores of others badly burned. An MGH team pioneers the use of skin grafts to cover large burns, forerunners of today’s skin transplantation techniques.


Dorling Kindersley/Getty Images


Joseph E. Murray, a surgeon at what was then Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in Boston, transplants a kidney from one identical twin to the other. The recipient survives for eight years.


Dr. John D. Cunningham/Getty Images


MGH surgeon Paul Russell and medical student Ruben F. Gittes perform endocrine gland transplants in animals. The results suggest that endocrine cells are less prone to rejection, helping unveil some of the mysteries of how and why organs are rejected.


Brad Wilson/Getty Images


A Tulane University team performs a reported 13 kidney transplants from chimpanzees into humans. One 23-year-old woman survives nine months, the longest-known survival for a human with a xenotransplanted organ.

Courtesy of Dr. Benedict Cosimi


A. Benedict Cosimi and others at MGH pioneer the use of monoclonal antibodies to treat transplant rejection, isolating a single molecule that specifically targets the body’s T cells, reducing their ability to reject transplanted organs. The process remains in wide use.


Catherine Ledner/Getty Images


After an antirejection drug, cyclosporine, is approved in 1983, a team from the Loma Linda University Medical Center transplants a baboon heart into a seriously ill newborn known as Baby Fae, who lives 20 days.


Geoff Brightling/Getty Images


Frustrated by the lack of transplant organs, MGH pediatric surgeon Joseph P. Vacanti and MIT engineer Robert Langer explore creating them from cells and biodegradable materials, launching the field of tissue engineering.



Scientists genetically engineer pigs to lack a certain type of sugar on the surface of their cells that primate antibodies treat as foreign, offering better odds for a pig organ not to be rejected.


Nucleus Medical Media/getty Images


An MGH team led by David Sachs, A. Benedict Cosimi and Megan Sykes reports successful, long-term tolerance in four of five kidney recipients who also received bone marrow from the donor, a process called mixed chimerism.

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