UCLA Spotlight




Paul Terasaki, pioneer in transplant medicine

  • Published May 17, 2010 8:15 AM
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Paul Terasaki with the new Life Sciences Building

When he transferred to UCLA in 1948, Paul Ichiro Terasaki had no idea that six decades in the future his name would appear on a major campus building.

“It would be impossible to think about that — to think that I would ever donate anything to UCLA would have been impossible. It’s quite a distance I’ve travelled,” Terasaki says today.

Terasaki — who spent three years during World War II interned with his family in an Arizona relocation camp and worked as a busboy, gardener and handyman — has given UCLA $50 million. In recognition of the gift, UCLA’s new Life Sciences Building will be named the Terasaki Life Sciences Building. Terasaki is a pioneer in organ transplant medicine who in 1964 developed the test that became the international standard method for tissue typing.

“I owe my whole career to UCLA,” Terasaki said. “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.”

Terasaki was the first person to devise a method to perform tissue typing and to develop antibodies to be used for tissue typing. Terasaki started a company called One Lambda with eight of his former students in 1984; the eight of them still work there, running the company, which now has 270 employees.

Terasaki said, “I developed this method for tissue typing, spun the company out, and stayed at UCLA another 15 years continuing my transplantation research. Although I’m involved in this business, I’m not really a businessman; I prefer to be doing research.”

During the first two decades of his life, however, prosperity seemed far from assured.

Terasaki was born into a poor immigrant family in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles in September, 1929. His parents’ primary goal, Terasaki said, was to earn a living and educate their children. During World War II his family lost most of their possessions.

Starting at age 12, he lived in the Gila River, Arizona relocation camp with his parents, two brothers and an aunt in a single modest room that was about the size of his current office. Terasaki described his education there with a single word: “deficient.”

Asked how he has dealt so well with adversity in his life, Terasaki tells a story with a lesson.

“Do you know the story about the Chinese farmer with only one son?” he asked. “Riding a horse, the son fell off and broke his leg, which was very sad for the farmer. But then war broke out, and all the sons went to war except his son. Then the horse ran away, and again the famer was very sad. A few days later, the horse came back with another horse. That’s how it is. A lot of times things go bad, but eventually they work out.”

After World War II, the family moved to the south side of Chicago. When the family felt it was safe to move back to Los Angeles, Terasaki applied to UCLA and was admitted as a transfer student in 1948, at age 19.

“I did not consider any university other than UCLA,” said Terasaki, who noted that fees back then cost $39 per semester and the campus had only a dozen buildings.

He earned his bachelor’s degree, master’s degree and Ph.D. from UCLA in zoology. After his Ph.D., he received a postdoctoral fellowship in London for a year, where he worked under Peter Medawar, who later received a Nobel Prize and is often considered the founder of the field of transplantation.

“He did not take many foreign students; I was one of the lucky few,” Terasaki said. “The training I received in England influenced most of my work since then.”

Terasaki started transplant work in 1950, with his master’s thesis.

“Sixty years ago,” he said with a laugh. “My parents wanted me to go into medicine, but I knew I was not suited to be a good doctor. I was more comfortable working on problems to be solved in the lab.”

He served as a UCLA professor of surgery, after being promoted from researcher, from 1969 until 1999, when he retired. Within a year, he resumed his academic pursuits with the creation of the Terasaki Foundation Laboratory, a research center dedicated to the study of antibodies to transplants. He has published more than 900 scientific articles and has trained some 100 postdoctoral scholars at UCLA.

Now 80 years old, he is still looking to the future.

“I’m happy to have my name on this state-of-the-art Life Sciences Building at UCLA, where many new and amazing discoveries will take place,” he said. “For me, it is exciting to know that the clinical research I began in the Life Sciences will continue in collaboration with the transplant groups at UCLA.”

Adapted from a story by Stuart Wolpert.