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With a new milestone, solid organ transplantation at the U celebrates 50 years

A fund named in memory of Ann Bly supports pediatric kidney transplant research.

Joyce Wallin secured her place in medical history on June 7, 1963, when she received a special gift from her identical twin sister, Jeanet Diment—a new kidney and a new lease on life.

It was the first solid organ transplant ever performed by University of Minnesota physicians and, as it turns out, the first of many pioneering transplant procedures to be performed at the University.

The University secured its standing as a world-class center for organ transplant innovation by performing transplants for two groups that had been considered impossible candidates: children and people with diabetes. It became the site of the country’s first formal training program for up-and-coming transplant experts; today it’s one of the largest.

And in April, University physicians performed their 8,000th kidney transplant—almost exactly 50 years after the transplant on Wallin, who lived in good health with her sister’s kidney for 37 years.

The opportunity to build on this distinguished history and learn from the best drew transplant nephrologist Priya Verghese, M.D., to the University four years ago. The opportunity to improve lives drew her to pediatric nephrology.

Priya Verghese, M.D.

When children ill with kidney failure receive a kidney transplant, they “bounce back so quickly,” Verghese says. “It’s amazing to see what they can accomplish.”

Besides her clinical duties at University of Minnesota Amplatz Children’s Hospital, Verghese leads first-of-its-kind research that aims to make transplants safer and more successful.

Preventing viral infections after transplantation is a major focus of her work. Because they lack previous exposure and immunity to certain viruses, children are particularly vulnerable to infections. The devastation of these infections can include transplant failure, cancer, and even death, Verghese says. So the trick is to strike a balance between suppressing the immune system so that the organ isn’t rejected, while also keeping infections at bay.

No one knows the importance of this work better than John Bly, who lost a daughter to kidney failure in 1998. At age 7, Ann Bly was among the first children in the country to receive a kidney transplant. Her second transplant took place at age 14. Her father says she had many medical “ups and downs” in the 14 years she lived with the second transplanted kidney, which he donated to her.

In his daughter’s honor, Bly made a gift of $100,000 to support Verghese’s pediatric kidney transplant research.

“I wanted to contribute to research that would help prevent the difficulties my daughter went through,” he says.

And as funding available from public sources continues to decline, experts like Verghese are relying on private support more than ever.

“We have great ideas and amazing things that we want to do—we just need the funds to do them,” Verghese says. “I am grateful to donors like Mr. Bly. He and others like him are critical for the execution of pilot studies that help generate the preliminary results required to apply for larger funding from federal sources like the National Institutes of Health.

“For those of us doing cutting-edge research, philanthropic support is pivotal.”

To find out how your support can make a difference in pediatric transplant research at the University, contact Elizabeth Patty at 612-625-6136 or patty@umn.edu.

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