Friday, 30 November 2012

My small part in the history of Liver Transplantation. Every interaction has an impact.

I have been blogging for a few months now and I wonder if my thoughts have had any impact on anyone. However a twitter conversation with Michael Seres (@mjseres) made me think about how little things can influence the bigger picture.

He tweeted about the death of the American surgeon, Dr Joseph Murray, who with Dr David Hume carried out the first successful kidney transplant in 1954. What got my attention was that Michael added the name of Thomas Starzl to that of Murray's and said that they were his heroes - the doctors who had made his own transplant possible.

The name of Thomas Starzl made a connection for me because I did some technical work as part of his research on liver transplantation back in the distant past. I used to work at St Mary's Hospital Medical School in the Department of Experimental Pathology. It was my second job after leaving university with a simple zoology degree in 1970. Between 1971 and 1988 I was technician carrying out diagnostic work and research as part of a team.  It was an exciting time, lots of research going on, the buzz of student life, living in London - you know the sort of thing.

There were lots of researchers who passed through the labs, learning and sharing ideas, and we were involved in their work. One of those people was Tom Starzl.

He and my boss, Prof Ken Porter, had worked together for many years on kidney and liver transplants.  In fact they developed an understanding of how rejection of the transplant happened and that discovery in turn led to the development of the immunosuppressive drugs that prevent rejection. Starzl carried out the first successful liver transplant in 1967 in Denver, Colorado and later developed the use of cyclosporin, a crucial immunosupressive drug, in 1982. Their original work had taken place well before I arrived at the lab but their transatlantic collaboration had continued and they often shared ideas and carried out research together.

So there I was, a relatively new graduate technician, still learning and I suddenly found myself contributing to the work of these amazing scientists. We did diagnostic work on the transplants from Denver and also lots of research into improving the chances of survival for transplants. Prof. Starzl would come over to London every couple of years but there was a constant flow of samples to be processed, cut and stained. We did light and electron microscopy but the most exciting technique was the auto-radiography that I did to see how the liver cells were regenerating.

I am sure the two professors could have done all the technical work we did but we did it all the time and they did all the thinking! They always appreciated the work we did and occasionally added our names to their scientific papers describing the results of the experiments. It was a great honour to be associated with them in this way.  Tom Starzl was always very friendly, a charming man. I remember that he used to ride around London on a push bike.  He would bring it into the lab and store it in one of the offices.

My conversation with @mjseres made me think about that part of my life again. I did a little research (Thank you Google) and found how just how important the work of these men was to the success of transplantation.  I realised that I, in a small way, contributed to their work and to the effect it had on the thousands of people who have successful transplants.  I now realise how fortunate I was to be associated with these amazing people and the wonderful things that they achieved.

So, thank you Michael, for reminding me about how important teamwork is and how everything, no matter how small, insignificant or routine it appears, is important.

We all have influence, every interaction has an impact and can produce slight changes in the way that others think and act.

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