Kidney Transplant pioneer and Nobel Prize winner dies aged 93
Dr Joseph E Murray, who performed the world's first successful kidney transplant and won a Nobel prize for his pioneering work, died on 26 November aged 93. The breakthrough followed half a century of experiments by doctors and scientists on animals and people, through which they came to understand organ transplantation and rejection by the immune system. Thanks to Murray’s research, organ transplants are now relatively commonplace procedures that have saved millions of lives.
Around the turn of the 20th Century, Emerich Ullman and Alexis Carrel were experimenting with kidney transplants between animals and found that kidneys could continue to produce urine after transplantation. This showed that kidney transplantation was potentially a viable treatment for kidney failure. But animal to human kidney transplants followed without success, and the first transplant between humans that was attempted in 1933 by Yurii Voronoy was also unsuccessful.
The primary reason for these early failures, unbeknown to the doctors, was rejection of the transplanted tissue by the patient’s immune system. While performing skin grafts on soldiers with severe burns during the Second World War, Joseph Murray noticed that grafts between patients lasted longer when they were between relatives. It was for this reason that in December 1954, Murray performed the first successful kidney transplant. The transplant was between identical twins: 23-year-old Richard Herrick, who had end-stage kidney failure, received a kidney from his brother, Ronald Herrick.
Understanding that the immune system was responsible for the rejection in unrelated patients, Murray experimented with radiation, and later drugs, to suppress the immune system of dogs and rats, allowing him to perform successful kidney transplants on the animals. Murray and colleagues reported the first clinical use of immune-suppressants in 1961, ushering in the modern era of transplantation.
Over 5,000 people suffer kidney failure every year in the UK and one in three would die without a transplant. Thanks to Murray’s pioneering research, and scientists before and after him, kidney transplants are now common place, giving freedom from dialysis and allowing many kidney recipients to lead normal lives.
Read Dr Murrays Nobel lecture here.
See an interview with Dr Murray on the Nobel Prize website here.