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Leaders in Innovation

The Lifesaving Work of Paul Terasaki

Thanks to his invention of a tissue-typing test that allowed doctors to determine the compatibility of donors and recipients in organ transplantation surgeries, 2018 National Inventors Hall of Fame® (NIHF) Inductee Paul Terasaki transformed the field of organ and tissue transplantation.

Born in Los Angeles on Sept. 10, 1929, to first-generation Japanese immigrants, he and his family faced early hardship and injustice when they were forced to relocate to the Gila River War Relocation Center as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066. Forced to sell most of their possessions as well as their cake shop in Little Tokyo at a loss, Terasaki and his family were held in the internment camp for three years.

“There were no worries about crime or drugs or any other negative influences that most kids face today, and young children, without proper schooling, were left to play,” Terasaki recalled in an interview. “But for those older, who were drafted into the Army while their families were in camp, life was much more difficult,” he said. 

Following the end of World War II, the Terasaki family was finally released from the internment camp and decided to start a new life in Chicago in order to avoid anti-Japanese sentiment rampant across the West Coast.

After graduating from high school, Terasaki considered attending radio repair school, but he was convinced by his mother to pursue medicine and enrolled at the University of Illinois at Navy Pier as a pre-med student. In 1948, the family felt safe enough to return to the Los Angeles area and Terasaki transferred to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) to complete a degree in zoology. Here, he earned three degrees including a master’s degree and a doctorate in the subject.


The Terasaki Tray

Following the completion of his doctorate, Terasaki joined the school’s Department of Surgery and began researching skin grafts in chickens, eventually leading to an interest in transplant tolerance. His research led him to the discovery that HLA antibodies were a major cause of chronic organ rejection and in 1964, he developed a microcytotoxicity test “that assessed the compatibility of organ donors and recipients.”  

This microscale test, conducted in what would later be called the Terasaki Tray, permitted 1,000 tests to be performed with only 1 mL of serum. When asked how he came up with this innovation, Terasaki remarked that while in the lab, he and his lab technician had to preserve the components necessary for their tests.

“Necessity is really the mother of invention,” Terasaki said in an interview. “Both my technician, John McClelland, and I were unable to venipuncture each other, so we finger poked each other for blood. We had to make enough lymphocytes from capillary tubes of blood for the test.”

This test soon became the international standard for tissue typing and “has been used for all solid organ donors and recipients for the past 50 years.”

According to David Klassen, chief medical officer for the United Network for Organ Sharing, Terasaki’s contributions revolutionized the field of organ transplant surgery and should not be overlooked.

“When most people think of organ transplantation, they picture the transplant surgery itself and the medical therapy that supports it,” Klassen said. “They don’t think as often about immunology and histocompatibility, but this discipline is essential to helping us know which donors and recipients are likely to be the best matches. Dr. Terasaki’s work had major impacts on the success and safety of organ transplants.”


A Dedicated Philanthropist

In 1984, Terasaki founded One Lambda Inc., a company specializing in tissue typing and antibody detection reagents. The sale of One Lambda to Thermo Fisher Scientific in 2012 gave him the ability to give generously to causes he believed in.

Terasaki worked at UCLA until he retired in 1999 and established the Terasaki Foundation Laboratory, a research institution dedicated to cancer immunotherapy and the study of humoral immunity and transplantation.

Throughout his life, he gave a total of $58 million to UCLA to support the school’s Life Sciences Division and International Institute (later renamed the Paul I. and Hisako Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies) and the Geffen School of Medicine.

I owe my whole career to UCLA,” Terasaki said in a 2010 interview. “UCLA gave me the opportunity to do the research that led to the development of tissue typing. At many other universities, I would not have had that kind of freedom in the lab.”

Additionally, Terasaki was a supporter of the Japanese American community and was a major donor to the Japanese American National Museum and the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center. He established the Nibei Foundation in 1998, a nonprofit organization that hosts cultural outreach events in Los Angeles.

In recognition of his accomplishments, he was awarded the UCLA medal in 2012, the school’s highest honor, and the Medawar Prize, the world’s highest dedicated award for contributions in the field of transplantation in 1996.


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