Stanford Medicine Newsletter Updates For the Local Community

Cardiac surgery

Building on 40 years of innovation

Spring 2008

Play eases the anxiety of Bernard Dannenberg's young patient.

Norman Shumway, MD, and his team made international headlines in 1968 when they performed the first adult human heart transplant in the United States.

Forty years ago, the first successful human heart transplant in the U.S. was performed by cardiac surgeon Norman Shumway, MD, and his team at Stanford Hospital. The event was the culmination of more than a decade’s worth of research, finally translated into a therapeutic option for patients with end-stage heart failure.

“We talk about translational research, but Dr. Shumway really embodied it. He made clinical heart transplantation a reality,” said Robert Robbins, MD, chair of the Department of Cardiothoracic Surgery at Stanford, who trained with Shumway. “He had complete passion in making that dream a reality. It’s a remarkable story that keeps moving forward.”

Shumway’s breakthrough surgery was only the fourth time the procedure was attempted in the world, and its success was greeted with an initial burst of excitement throughout the medical world.

But the enthusiasm soon dampened due to the high rate of post-surgical deaths. Shumway persevered; for almost 10 years Stanford remained one of the only centers in the country to offer the operation.

“Great cardiac surgeons said that the clinical process was futile because they didn’t have a full team,” explained Robbins. “Shumway knew you needed to bring together the surgeons, nurses, immunologists—everyone—to make the procedure a success.”

Teamwork remains the cornerstone for progress—not just between individual specialists, whose expertise paved the way to establishing what is now considered a routine procedure—but among clinical and academic centers of excellence at Stanford. The heart transplant program exists at an intersection where adult and pediatric care meets academic progress.

Researchers and clinicians at Stanford continue to make steady progress in all areas of heart transplantation, including efforts to increase the donor pool, improve organ preservation and heart biopsies, and advance the development of drugs to prevent rejection.

Maintaining the spirit that drove Stanford’s cardiothoracic surgery program under Shumway’s leadership, Robbins and his colleagues are blazing new trails on behalf of cardiology patients. Research by a multidisciplinary team of specialists at Stanford may bring the promise of stem cell therapies out of the laboratory and into the hospital.

“A heart transplant is a big operation, so there’s a lot of enthusiasm for research into alternatives,” said Robbins. “Stanford will continue to be a pioneer in translating promising research into successful treatments.”  

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