Marking 50 Years Since The First Adult Heart Transplant In The U.S. Fifty years ago Saturday, the first adult heart transplant in the U.S. was performed at Stanford Hospital. Dr. Sharon Hunt was a medical student at the time and talks with NPR's Scott Simon.
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Marking 50 Years Since The First Adult Heart Transplant In The U.S.

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Marking 50 Years Since The First Adult Heart Transplant In The U.S.

Marking 50 Years Since The First Adult Heart Transplant In The U.S.

Marking 50 Years Since The First Adult Heart Transplant In The U.S.

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Fifty years ago Saturday, the first adult heart transplant in the U.S. was performed at Stanford Hospital. Dr. Sharon Hunt was a medical student at the time and talks with NPR's Scott Simon.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The first adult heart transplant in the United States took place 50 years ago today at Stanford Hospital. Chief surgeon Norman Shumway replaced the diseased heart of retired steelworker Mike Kasperak. Mr. Kasperak lived for only another 15 days. But today heart replacement surgery has become practically commonplace. Dr. Sharon Hunt was a second-year medical student at Stanford in 1968. She didn't participate in the historic surgery, but she went on to work with Dr. Shumway after she graduated in 1977. She's now medical director of the post-heart transplant program at Stanford and joins us now.

Thanks so much for being with us.

SHARON HUNT: My pleasure.

SIMON: What was that day like on campus?

HUNT: Well, it was a media frenzy here. I remember that very much, even though I was a mere student. There were media people and reporters absolutely everywhere. Several very aggressive reporters actually crawled up the outside walls with cameras to get to the second floor intensive care unit to photograph the - Mr. Kasperak. It was pretty exciting. And yeah, we did feel like we were on the brink of something pretty major.

SIMON: I was interested to learn that prosecutors in the early days of transplant surgery charged some doctors with murder following heart transplant cases because, although the person donating the heart was brain dead, that wasn't considered legally dead in the 1960s.

HUNT: No, it wasn't. There had been no particular call for a definition - a legal definition of brain death - prior to that. And both Dr. Shumway and his colleague Dr. Lauer, at some point, tried to be prosecuted for murder because they actually removed a heart from the brain-dead individual. Both were thrown out of court, but they did lead to the perception that there was a need to define this condition.

SIMON: How did medical science eventually overcome the problem of rejection in transplant surgeries?

HUNT: Well, medical science has overcome it in good part but really, even in 2018, not completely. Probably, the biggest contribution we made during the early years was to perfect - or at least introduce - a method to diagnose rejection accurately. And that was the performance of heart biopsies. That sounds like something really dreadful. We all know what biopsies are. And you would think you probably have to open...

SIMON: Yeah.

HUNT: ...The chest. But in fact, there is an instrument called a bioptome that you can insert into a person's internal jugular vein and advance into the heart from the inside and snip off little pieces of heart muscle - retrieve them to the outside and then look at them under the microscope to diagnose rejection. We do that, currently, on a fairly routine basis and have since around 1973 when we first introduced that.

SIMON: There are several thousand, I gather, successful heart transplant surgeries in the United States every year.

HUNT: Yes, somewhere between 2,000 and 2,500.

SIMON: What procedures might be in the offing for us in the near future?

HUNT: Well, a couple of things - many people are working on the concept of genetically modifying non-human animals to be immunologically acceptable as transplant organ donors. The most likely animal seems, at this point, to be the pig. The other thing that's subject of a lot of current scientific work is the use of what we call regenerative medicine, where stem cells are somehow used to rebuild damaged cells and damaged organs - not ready for prime time yet but might be soon.

SIMON: Dr. Sharon Hunt of Stanford, thanks so much for being with us.

HUNT: You're most welcome.

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