Pittsburgh Evolves into International Leader in Health-Care Research

By Fabregas, Luis | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, September 2, 2009 | Go to article overview

Pittsburgh Evolves into International Leader in Health-Care Research


Fabregas, Luis, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


When University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Mark Nordenberg first heard Pittsburgh would host the Group of 20 summit, he was surprised.

The more he thought about it, however, the more the selection made sense.

"The work that is done by the faculty, in our health science schools, has played a big, big role in the dramatic growth of Pittsburgh as a center both for world class health care and for pioneering research," Nordenberg said.

Health care has replaced steel as Pittsburgh's dominant industry. The region's largest employer is the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, which includes 20 hospitals and a health insurance plan. UPMC employs more than 50,000 people and is headquartered in Downtown's tallest building, the U.S. Steel Tower. Yet another hospital network, West Penn Allegheny Health System, employs 13,000.

As the university's clinical partner, the highly profitable UPMC operates independently and provides more than $100 million every year to support the university's research programs. Those programs have attracted hundreds of international researchers studying everything from cancer to juvenile diabetes.

"What makes Pittsburgh a particularly nice match for the G-20 is the fact that international education and research have always been a particular strength of the university," Nordenberg said.

Pittsburgh researchers have long attracted the national and international spotlight. In 1952, Pitt scientist Dr. Jonas Salk announced the creation of a vaccine against polio, a crippling illness that left thousands of children in wheelchairs and leg braces. The Salk vaccine, which led to a dramatic drop in polio cases worldwide, is considered one of the top medical achievements of the last century.

Pittsburgh's reputation as a medical trailblazer has been attributed to its achievements in organ transplantation. Pittsburgh in the 1980s was known as the capital of organ transplantation and people came from as far as the Middle East to get transplants. UPMC's transplant center is named after the surgeon Dr. Thomas E. Starzl, who performed the world's first successful liver transplant.

Although Starzl is retired, UPMC has continued to expand its transplant program with the creation of a transplant center in Sicily, Italy. Surgeons at the hospital perform heart, liver, kidney, lung and pancreas transplants.

The success of the hospital has enabled UPMC to establish strong ties with other countries. UPMC now operates two cancer centers and a hospital in Ireland, and an emergency medical system in Qatar.

Chuck Bogosta, president of UPMC's international and commercial services division, said UPMC in the last three years has hosted delegations from Ireland, Italy, Iceland, Mexico, China, Greece and other countries interested in establishing partnerships.

"Pittsburgh is now synonymous with quality health care," Bogosta said. Foreign delegations "are fascinated by what's happening here."

UPMC has announced plans to establish 25 cancer centers in Europe and the Middle East in the next decade. Most recently, officials announced they will manage a $120 million hospital in Cyprus.

Top 20 medical achievements in Pittsburgh

Polio vaccine

The crippling illness that killed thousands in the 1950s was virtually eliminated after Dr. Jonas Salk created a much heralded vaccine at the University of Pittsburgh. The Salk polio vaccine is considered one of the top scientific achievements of the last century.

Organ transplantation

Pittsburgh is home to the busiest organ transplantation center in the United States. Named after transplant pioneer Thomas E. Starzl, surgeons have performed nearly 12,000 since 1988. Starzl, a now- retired University of Pittsburgh professor, performed the first successful liver transplant at the University of Colorado in 1967.

Vitamin C

University of Pittsburgh biochemist Charles Glen King in 1932 isolated a compound in fruit identified as vitamin C.

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