Dr. Paul Terasaki, a University of California, Los Angeles researcher, professor emeritus, philanthropist and alumnus who was a transplant medicine pioneer, died this week. He was 86.
Terasaki developed a tissue-typing test in 1964 that became the international standard method of determining compatibility of organ donors with potential recipients. Heart, liver, kidney, pancreas, lung and bone marrow donors and recipients have been typed using Terasaki’s test. He was the first to devise such a method.
Just as each person has a blood type, each person has a tissue type. The latter is much more complicated because more than 1,000 tissue types exist.
In the 1970s, Terasaki created the UCLA Kidney Transplant Registry, the first and largest of its kind in the world until the establishment of federal registries. The UCLA data about kidney recipients submitted from about 200 transplant centers permitted doctors to monitor and improve the outcomes of transplant patients.
Terasaki started a company called One Lambda in 1984 with help from former students. One Lambda played a central role in the advancement of tissue typing and provided transplant centers with tools to better match their patients.
“Paul was a groundbreaking scientist,” said Dr. Victoria Sork, dean of life sciences at UCLA. “His work has saved countless lives.”
In 2010, Terasaki donated $50 million to UCLA, one of the largest, single gifts in the university’s history, resulting in a new life sciences building to be named for him. The facility houses laboratories where scientists conduct studies integrating fields such as cell biology, neuroscience, genomics and stem cell research. Terasaki’s donation also endowed a chair in surgery at UCLA’s medical school and financed a pair of postdoctoral fellowships to further research in liver and intestinal transplantation.
“I owe my whole career to UCLA,” Terasaki said at the time of his gift. “UCLA gave me the opportunity to do research. At many other universities, I would not have had that kind of freedom.”
News of the 2010 donation came on the heels of Terasaki, already past 80, presenting findings at a major scientific conference in San Diego, Calif. At that time, an important advance had occurred among 16 kidney transplant patients who had survived for two years since their surgeries without drugs—a threshold known as achieving the so-called holy grail of tolerance for transplants.
Over the years, Terasaki donated another $6 million—$1 million of it last summer—to UCLA in support of its Center for Japanese Studies and endowed faculty chairs in that discipline and in U.S.-Japanese relations.
A glance at his childhood, however, would not have predicted great wealth in his future.
His low-income, immigrant parents raised him in Los Angeles, where his father operated a bakery. But during the hysteria and xenophobia of World War II, Terasaki and his family were among tens of thousands of Japanese-Americans rounded up from their homes by the U.S. government and sent to hastily-made incarceration camps. The family was assigned to a remote camp in Arizona. For three years, the teenage Terasaki, his parents, two brothers and an aunt were confined to a single room not much bigger than the office he would eventually occupy at UCLA. The family lost most of their possessions; their cake shop was sold for pennies on the dollar.
“Paul and his family endured some of the darkest days for Japanese-Americans,” said Hitoshi Abe, director of UCLA’s Japanese studies center. “He never forgot his roots.”
After the war, the family, upset by how their lives were turned upside-down in California, moved to Chicago, where Terasaki enrolled in school again. When the family decided it was safe to return to Los Angeles, he transferred to UCLA, where he earned bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees, all in zoology. He began work in transplant medicine in 1950 with his master’s thesis.
He was one of the few non-British individuals to receive a postdoctoral fellowship in London that allowed him to work under Sir Peter Medawar, who is often regarded as the founder of the organ transplantation field. Terasaki has credited his training overseas with influencing his life’s work. His many awards include the Medawar Prize, named for his former teacher, widely considered one of the world’s most prestigious honors for scientific achievement.
A professor of surgery at UCLA’s medical school from 1969 to 1999, Terasaki was unique among faculty in that discipline nationally because he lacked a medical degree. Although his mother had steered him toward medicine, he preferred problem-solving in labs over treating patients. He trained 100-plus postdoctoral scholars at UCLA.
After his 1999 retirement, he continued his research by creating the Terasaki Foundation Laboratory, a center devoted to studying and solving problems associated with organ transplant rejection and failure. He sold One Lambda in 2012 to Thermo Fisher Scientific, a Fortune® 500 corporation.
Terasaki is survived by his wife of 61 years, Hisako, four children, six grandchildren and a brother. Plans for a memorial service are pending.