World-leading transplant surgery

Few places in the world can lay claim to such an array of incredible feats of surgical skill and innovation as Cambridge. A large part of that portfolio belongs to Professor Sir Roy Calne, who performed Europe’s first successful liver transplant, on a 46­-year-­old woman, in 1968.

Calne’s team’s work proved that major organs could be transplanted successfully, and that patients not only survived, but recovered. Their work would change the entire healthcare system, from the consent and delivery organs, to the operating table.

Calne began with a single patient 48 years ago. He risked his reputation, and face opposition from the surgical faculty. In testament to his success, in the years between 2004 and 2014, 7,156 liver transplants have taken placed in the United Kingdom.

Who is Roy Calne?

Professor Sir Roy Calne is an Honorary Vice ­President of the Cambridge University Lawn Tennis Club. He is also a pioneering surgeon, having performed Europe’s first successful liver transplant (1968), the world’s first combined liver, heart and lung transplant (1987) and the UK’s first intestinal transplant (1992).

A large portion of Calne’s career was spent at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge ­ a bronze bust sculpture of him sits outside the main operating theatres there.

His work on liver transplantation ­ a credit he shares with another pioneering surgeon, the American Thomas Starzl ­is remarkable, given how complex and fraught with danger the process of transplanting a major organ is.

What’s involved in a liver transplant?

No amount of words can do full justice to the incredible complexity of transplanting a human liver, but in general, the procedure goes like this:

  • The patient is prepared with anaesthesia, and by having urine drained using a catheter
  • An incision is made to gain access to the liver and surrounding organs
  • The diseased liver is carefully separated from the surrounding tissue and organs
  • Blood vessels and veins are clamped to prevent bleeding
  • The diseased liver is removed
  • The donor liver is checked, then inserted
  • Blood vessels and veins are connected, as are the bile ducts and surrounding insertions
  • The new liver is inspected for bleeding
  • The incision is sewn up and allowed to heal
  • Fact: Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge is one of only seven liver transplant units in the UK.

As if foreseeing the 1968 transplant, Calne also happened to play a major role in the development of the first effective immunosuppressant drug in 1959.

Immunosuppressants are an essential, and often lifelong presence following an organ transplant, and early on, it was rejection by the body which caused the transplant to ultimately fail, not the surgery.

Today, immunosuppressant drugs are incredibly advanced, and prescribed as standard practice following a transplant.

There are currently over 6,000 people in the UK waiting for an organ transplant. The lucky ones will find a match, and with a nod to the work of Calne and colleagues, Cambridge will continue to play its part in restoring as many lives as possible.

Explore further

Transplant surgery at Cambridge University Hospitals
What happens during a liver transplant?

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