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Anti-rejection therapy

the key to successful organ transplants South East,

Black-and-white photograph of Peter Medawar.
Peter Medawar. Royal Society.

Organ donation has revolutionised the way we treat organ failure and many other illnesses: today in Britain around 2700 people a year benefit from a medical procedure of this kind. However, many steps were needed to reach this point and it was a British biologist who, through his insights into rejection, did most to change transplants from research surgery into life-saving treatments. 

In 1940, as the Battle of Britain raged overhead, a plane crashed near the house of biologist Peter Medawar (1915-87) in Oxford. The pilot was badly burnt and Medawar, already researching tissue growth, asked if he could help him. It was this unexpected event that sparked Medawar's interest in the transplantation of skin. With surgeon Thomas Gibson he discovered the 'homograft reaction': the process by which the body rejects tissue from an unrelated individual. 

It was not until the 1950s that drugs were developed which suppressed this reaction. These included azathioprine, which, combined with steroids, improved the survival rate of kidney transplant recipients from 1963. However, Medawar's research proved a vital first step towards modern organ replacement, from hearts to multi-organ transplants. 

Science Museum

South East
Oxford, Oxfordshire
Key Individuals
Peter Medawar,