John Najarian, Pioneering Transplant Surgeon, Dies at 92

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John Najarian, Pioneering Transplant Surgeon, Dies at 92

Dr. John S. Najarian, a pioneering transplant surgeon who made headlines for picking up difficult cases and who weathered a different type of headline when he was accused of inadequacies related to a drug he was developing and then exonerated, died in August . 31 in Stillwater, Minn., East of Minneapolis. He was 92 years old.

His son Peter confirmed his death in a nursing home.

Dr. Najarian, who was chief of surgery at the University of Minnesota hospitals for many years, was revered in the transplant field, which he entered when human organ transplantation was new. Dr. Najarian was appointed head of surgery in 1967, succeeding Dr. Owen H. Wangensteen, a noted surgeon, hired and soon grew the program into a leading provider of kidney, liver, pancreas, and other types of transplants.

He "did the hard cases," said Dr. Sayeed Ikramuddin, the current chair of the university's surgery department, via email. Dr. For example, Najarian performed transplants on kidney patients with diabetes or on patients so fragile that other doctors would not operate.

In 1970 he gave a new kidney to the youngest patient ever to have one – a 6 week old boy; Dr. Najarian used magnifying lenses to connect the tiny arteries. In 1981, he led a surgical team that performed a liver transplant on one of the oldest patients ever operated, a 64-year-old man.

Months later, he and his team transplanted an adult kidney into a 10-month-old boy who, at 8.8 pounds (the child's use of an artificial kidney machine had prevented him from growing), was the smallest patient to ever have had such an operation in central Minnesota, which until then had been performing regular transplants on children.

In November 1982, Dr. Najarian performed an operation with the highest profile. The patient was Jamie Fiske, who became the youngest successful liver transplant recipient when Dr. Najarian performed the operation a few weeks before her first birthday. Her parents had filed a widespread appeal for a donor.

"They were told that she would not survive such an operation," said Dr. Najarian in an oral history recorded for the University of Minnesota Academic Health Center in 2011. "I'm not the type to take this lightly. So I told them," If a liver becomes available, we will transplant it and it will work "- quite a bold statement, but she did."

Dr. Najarian's success with transplants was aided by a drug he developed in 1970, a type of antilymphocyte globulin known as Minnesota ALG, which addressed the biggest problem with early transplants: new organ rejection. The drug, he said, which he began using around 1970, gave Minnesota transplant teams significantly better results than other surgical centers with a product offered by a drug company.

"Everyone thought we were lying," said Dr. Najarian, "because we could admit and transplant patients and 65 to 70 percent of them did very well, while they were lucky enough to have 50 percent on the commercially available product from." Upjohn. "

Other transplant centers asked about the product, and it turned into a multi-million dollar business deal for the university. In 1992, the Food and Drug Administration, which approved ALG as an investigational drug but not for interstate sale, stopped the program and federal agencies opened an investigation. The university turned to Dr. Najarian and urged him to resign. In 1995 he was charged with violating drug safety laws and other crimes.

Dr. Najarian claimed the case was an attempt by the pharmaceutical industry and its friends in the F.D.A. suppress a successful treatment that cost drug companies money by defeating their products.

"The F.D.A. and the drug houses were in bed together," he said bluntly in the oral tradition.

His 1996 federal trial in St. Paul, Minnesota provided justification. Judge Richard Kyle dismissed six of the charges, and a jury acquitted him of the other 15. The judge then took the extraordinary step that F.D.A. and the prosecutors.

"I have some questions about why we were here in the first place," said Judge Kyle.

The F.D.A., he added, "was certainly aware of what was going on and yet they came here as witnesses to testify that they were somehow betrayed by this defendant and his colleagues and other people at the university."

"We had a program here in Minnesota," added the judge, "that for all its problems and flaws was a good program that literally saved thousands of lives."

Peter Najarian, a former professional soccer player and market analyst who makes frequent appearances on CNBC, said the prosecutor's suggestion that his father somehow line his pockets did not suit the man.

"What he was accused of was financial, and in reality he was never a man interested in money," Najarian said in a telephone interview. "When I started playing professional football, I was embarrassed that I was making more money than my father who saved lives."

After his discharge, Mr Najarian said, his father was told to sue the university or otherwise appeal, but he just wanted to go back to helping the patients.

"I was amazed that he entered the higher plane," said his son.

John Sarkis Najarian was born on December 22, 1927 in Oakland, California, to Armenian parents. His father Garabed sold carpets and his mother Siran was a housewife.

Dr. Najarian said he was considering a medical career when he was hospitalized with a herniated appendix for six weeks at age 12. His doctors and nurses impressed him.

"I would do anything to find out how I could become one of them," he said in the oral tradition.

Dr. A physically imposing man aged 6 feet 4, Najarian played soccer at the University of California at Berkeley, which he graduated from in 1948. In 1952, he completed his medical degree at the University of California at San Francisco, completing a surgical internship the next year, then served two years in the Air Force.

When he was stationed in Albuquerque, where he was responsible for medical care for airmen there and in three nearby states, two things happened in medicine that shaped his future. One of them was a rapid improvement in cardiac surgery that he had been considering, and he wondered if this specialty would offer the kind of challenges he longed for. The other was the first successful human organ transplant in which one kidney was moved from one identical twin to the other. It was founded in 1954 by Dr. Joseph E. Murray in Boston.

"What an opportunity," said Dr. Najarian in the oral tradition. "I mean, take someone who's going to die just because their organ isn't working and you take it out or let it in and put another in and keep it alive – well, that's awesome."

In 1955 he left the military, returned to the medical school in San Francisco as a surgeon, and in 1960 moved to the medical school of the University of Pittsburgh. In 1963 he served as director of the surgical research laboratories and head of transplant services again in San Francisco. He moved to Minnesota in 1967.

Dr. Najarian married Mignette Anderson in 1952; She died last year. One son, Paul, died in 2014. In addition to his son Peter, his sons Jon and David, 12 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren survive.

In a 2010 interview with Twin Cities PBS, Dr. Najarian, who was still undergoing occasional surgery at the time, asked if the sight of a transplanted organ brought to life in its new host had ever grown old.

"When that kidney goes in and makes the first drop of urine," he said, "when the liver goes in and makes the first drop of bile, and when the lungs go in and expand – these things are wonderful and they are." A miracle today and I never tire of seeing it. "

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