UCLA Spotlight


Hillel Laks, Cardiothoracic Surgery

  • Published Nov 1, 2001 8:00 AM

Internationally recognized as a leader in taking creative approaches to complex heart disease, Dr. Hillel Laks has pioneered innovative surgical procedures. Many of those techniques are now used in operating rooms around the world. Laks, chief of cardiothoracic surgery at UCLA Medical Center, established the UCLA Heart, Lung and Heart-Lung Transplant Program in 1984. The program is now the largest in the world. A few weeks ago, he and his team performed another kind of transplant as they implanted one of the world's first total artificial hearts into a man in his 70s.

"I am very excited about the potential for permanent implantable devices and the artificial heart," says Laks. "Cutting-edge technology will soon change the entire treatment for severe heart failure and will save thousands of lives."

Laks is known for taking on the most challenging cases and looking for new ways to help solve old problems. His groundbreaking preservation techniques for donor hearts have extended the length of time that hearts can be preserved, allowing doctors to transport donor hearts over long distances. He has also developed innovative techniques for the treatment of congenital heart disease.

"The heart is a very remarkable organ that adapts to new technologies quite well," comments Laks. "As heart surgeons, this allows us the unique opportunity to go in and fix a problem and achieve outstanding results."

In the early 1990s, Laks saw another challenge. Patients over the age of 65 and younger patients with medical complications were usually rejected for heart transplants. Healthy donor hearts are scarce and typically go to younger, healthier patients who presumably have a better and longer chance of survival. Laks saw an opportunity to take less-than-perfect donor hearts that would usually be discarded, repair them in some cases, and give them to patients who otherwise would not get a heart transplant.

In 1992, he established the UCLA Alternative Recipient Heart Transplant Program. In his first case, Laks performed a quadruple-bypass on a 53-year-old donor heart and transplanted it into a 68-year-old man. Since then, more than 75 alternate recipient heart transplants have been performed at UCLA. These patients' survival rates compare favorably to those of traditional heart transplant patients.

Laks has always had an active interest in research. Currently, he is collaborating on projects that include the artificial heart and cardiac assist devices, robotic and minimally invasive surgery and the prevention of cardiac rejection by gene therapy, organ preservation and valve repair for congenital heart disease.

Where does Laks get his inspiration to develop cutting-edge techniques? It may stem from a lifelong goal to play a significant role in helping those suffering from heart disease and to develop solutions to problems for which there are no good answers. He also draws on plenty of outside interests to spur his imagination. The renowned heart surgeon is also an amateur artist, an avid reader of history and an aspiring writer.

As a young student growing up in South Africa, Laks never dreamed that doctors would one day implant mechanical hearts into humans. Now, he looks forward to participating in the revolutionary breakthroughs yet to come.