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University's heart transplant program celebrates its 30th anniversary

For cardiovascular surgeon Lyle Joyce, M.D., Ph.D., it’s still a vivid memory. As a surgical resident at the University of Minnesota in 1978‚ he scrubbed in with Demetre Nicoloff‚ M.D.‚ Ph.D.‚ and William Lindsay‚ M.D.‚ to perform Minnesota’s first heart transplant.

The world’s first heart transplant had been done about a decade earlier in South Africa by Christiaan Barnard‚ M.D.‚ who trained under University surgery legends Owen Wangensteen, M.D., Ph.D., and C.Walton Lillehei‚ M.D.‚ Ph.D. But in the late 1960s‚ the transplantation process needed improvement—those who survived surgery eventually died when their bodies rejected their new hearts.

By 1978‚ Joyce says‚ better immunosuppressive drugs had become available. Though the new drugs were effective in people who’d had kidney transplants‚ doctors didn’t know whether they would work in heart transplant patients.

The University’s pioneering surgical team decided to find out.

“There was a certain sense of experiencing a miracle when I saw the empty chest be filled by a completely still donor organ that spontaneously started beating once it was sewn in and received blood‚” says Joyce‚ now a professor of surgery at the University. “Strange as it may seem‚ I still have the same sense of awe during each heart transplant‚ even after 30 years and hundreds of transplants.”

Anti-rejection drugs continued to improve over the next few years‚ and in 1986 University surgeons performed Minnesota’s first heartlung transplant‚ and a year later‚ the state’s first heart-kidney transplant.

One of the world's longest-living heart transplant survivors, Cheri Lemmer, here with cardiologist Mac Pritzker, M.D., is now almost 28 years post-transplant.

Today more than 650 heart transplants have been performed at the University’s hospitals. Sixty of those have been for children.

Leaders of the University’s heart transplant program are proud of their many firsts. But today they have a new goal: preventing the need for transplants altogether. There just aren’t enough donor organs for everyone who needs them‚ says Daniel J. Garry, M.D., Ph.D., director of the cardiology division in the Medical School’s Department of Medicine and executive director of the Lillehei Heart Institute.

So instead‚ they’re aiming to build better‚ more durable devices that help prolong life for people in heart failure who aren’t eligible for a transplant and to improve quality of life for those waiting for a new heart.

Joyce now directs the Ventricular Assist Device (VAD) Program at the University of Minnesota Medical Center, Fairview, one of the country’s premier centers for this procedure. VADs are small pumps that‚ when implanted into the heart‚ take over the work a failing heart can no longer do on its own. Since University surgeons performed Minnesota’s first VAD implantation in 1995‚ another 350-plus lives have been extended or improved through this procedure here.

University physicians and scientists are also exploring ways to prevent heart failure and promote regeneration after heart damage using cell therapy.

And for those who still need heart transplants‚ they are working to develop new immunosuppressive drugs with fewer side effects‚ a better donor-recipient matching system‚ and ways to recellularize cadaver hearts to help make more organs available for transplant.

“The program today is focusing on innovation‚” Garry says.

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