The Breath of Life

Lung transplant program turns 20; team produces stellar results

When Ganesh Raghu, M.D., and his colleagues — including Joshua O. Benditt, M.D. ’82, Thomas L. Marchioro, M.D., and Edward D. Verrier, M.D. — founded the lung transplant program at UW Medicine 20 years ago, they were responding to what they saw as a pressing need in patient care. “The New England Journal of Medicine had just published an article on the first long-term lung transplant on a patient with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis,” remembers Raghu, UW professor of medicine in the Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine and the program’s medical director until June 2012. “With the team of experts we’d assembled, I knew that we could help our patients with end-stage lung disease.”

It was a prophetic moment. Since the program’s creation, more than 650 patients have received new lungs — and a new lease on life — at UW Medical Center, the only site in a five-state region that conducts lung transplants.

“We have some of the best outcomes in the country even though we also have some of the sickest patients,” says Michael Mulligan, M.D., UW professor in the Department of Surgery, director of the lung transplant program and the holder of the UW Medicine Distinguished Endowed Professorship in Lung Transplant Research. “Nationally, about 20 percent of lung transplant patients have problems with their graft,” says Mulligan. “Here, it’s under 5 percent.”

Science is partially responsible for those results: Mulligan and his colleagues have figured out how to minimize problems with the graft by making the donated lung as healthy as it can be before it’s transplanted. The next likely advance? Increasing the number of available lungs through ex vivo resuscitation. Lungs are removed from the donor, treated on a special device to optimize performance, then transplanted.

Utter dedication is the other key to the program’s success. Faculty and staff put in long hours finding, repairing and transplanting lungs and providing pre- and post-operative medical care. It’s a team effort, says Raghu, and “that team includes every single person working here.”

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