It’s National Donate Life Month – Thanks to Animal Research!

Look on your driver’s license. Does it have that little symbol indicating you are an organ donor?

If so, then thank animal research for making that possible!

Sample driver’s license. Source: Maryland MVA.

April is National Donate Life Month, and many people choose to register as organ, eye and tissue donors. Perhaps you know someone who has received an organ transplant (which can include skin transplants), or you yourself have been a recipient. Maybe you’ve donated an organ to a loved one. In fact, organ transplants are so common that in 2016, the number of organ transplants surpassed 30,000 for the first time in the U.S.

The successes of organ (and eye and tissue) transplants are possible because of the long history of animal research behind them. Below, a timeline of organ transplant successes, all of which relied on research with animals to develop the techniques and immunosuppressive drugs.

  • 1905 – The first successful human transplant occurred, after research by Eduard Zirm with rabbits resulted in the first cornea implant.
  • 1912 Alexis Carrel received the Nobel Prize for his technique for joining up blood vessels, which are crucial for organ transplants.
  • 1950s – Research with dogs, rabbits, and mice resulted in the development of surgery techniques and anti-rejection drugs. Successful organ transplants in both humans and animals became possible.
  • 1954 – The first successful kidney transplant (with twins) was performed at Brigham & Women’s Hospital in Boston, MA, by Dr. Joseph E. Murray.
  • 1967 Dr. Christiaan Barnard performed the first successful heart transplant in 1967, building on more than 60 years of research, and after performing nearly 50 dog heart transplants.
  • 1967 Dr. Thomas Starzl, “The Father of Transplantation,” performs the first successful liver transplant, building on decades of research with dogs, pigs, and baboons.
  • 1968 – The first successful bone marrow transplant was performed by Dr. E. Donnall Thomas, for which he won the Nobel Prize (shared with Dr. Joseph E. Murray for the first successful kidney transplant in 1954), after research with rodents and dogs.
  • 1976 – J.F. Borel discovers cyclosporine as an immunosuppressive drug (necessary to prevent organ rejection) following transplants in pigs, leading to the first treatment in humans for a kidney transplant in 1978.
  • 1981 Bruce Reitz performed the first combined heart/lung transplant at Stanford Hospital, which relied on his earlier research on autotransplants with rhesus monkeys.
  • 1987 – The first successful intestinal transplant was performed by E. Deltz in Germany, building upon research with rodents, dogs, and pigs.
  • 1999 – The first successful hand transplant in the U.S. was performed by Dr. Warren C. Breidenbach of the University of Louisville at the Louisville Jewish Hospital, building upon research with pigs.
  • 2011 – The first successful full face transplant was performed at Boston’s Brigham & Women’s Hospital, following research with pigs. A year later, the most extensive full face transplant to date was performed. 
  • 2014 – The first baby was born to the recipient of a uterine transplant in Sweden, following studies in mice, rats, rabbits, sheep, pigs, and nonhuman primates. The first such baby was born in the U.S. in 2017.
Large White
Domestic pig. Source: Wikipedia.

It’s clear as we celebrate National Donate Life Month that without animals, the astounding progress in organ, eye, and tissue transplants would be impossible. Next time you look at the “organ donor” symbol on your license, or if you sign up to be an organ donor, thank an animal!

~Amanda M. Dettmer, PhD