50 Years of Life – The Anniversary of the First Heart Transplant

Earlier this week, on December 3, 2017, the medical community celebrated the 50th anniversary of one of the most historic events ever – the first ever human heart transplant. It’s been 50 years since Dr. Christiaan Barnard performed the procedure on 53-year old Lewis Washkansky, a South African grocer dying of heart disease. Though Washkansky would die 18 days later from pneumonia, his new heart functioned normally up until his death, setting the tone for a half-century of innovation within this life saving procedure.

Not long after, on January 6, 1968, Dr. Norman Edward Shumway performed the first human heart transplant in the U.S. Within the first year, 101 heart transplants had been performed, though to universally poor results – only about 40% survived.

However, experts like Dr. Shumway and Dr. Richard Lower pushed on, contributing to several key milestones within the field:

  • Survival rate increasing to 60% by 1980
  • The accepted criteria for brain death, an important factor in harvesting a healthy organ for transplantation
  • Advancements in immunosuppressives, used to fight rejection of the organ by the body after transplantation (boosting survival rates to 80%)

There are more than 3,500 heart transplants completed each year – more than half in the U.S. – with post-operation survival periods averaging 15 years. A lot has been accomplished in 50 years, but there is still more to do. Thousands remain waiting on the heart transplant list, and even more for other organs. Innovation must continue.

“It’s important to celebrate the significance of the first heart transplant 50 years ago, as it set in motion a half century of medical innovation that has led to the improvement and saving of thousands of lives,” said Dr. Jeffrey Morgan, MD, Chief Medical Officer of BIOLIFE4D. Dr. Morgan also serves as Professor and Chief, Division of Cardiothoracic Transplantation and Circulatory Support at Baylor College of Medicine, and the Surgical Director, Mechanical Circulatory Support and Cardiac Transplantation at the Texas Heart Institute at Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Center.

“Despite all of the progress made over the last 50 years, there is still much work and innovating to do. There are still too many people on the transplant list, and not enough hearts to save them all. That’s why we’re working so diligently at BIOLIFE4D to be the next great medical achievement within heart transplants. By successfully bioprinting human hearts, we would eliminate the need for a donor list, reduce wait times and organ rejection, and save more lives. For the 100 year anniversary of the heart transplant, we want to be talking about how BIOLIFE4D gave the best gift of all – the gift of time.”

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