Dr. Edward H. “Pete” Ahrens
Dr. Edward H. Ahrens, called Pete by his colleagues and friends, was a prominent clinical investigator who crossed paths with Dr. Starzl while both men were trying to develop a treatment for hypercholesterolemia. A Chicago native, Ahrens went east to attend Harvard, both as an undergraduate and for his medical degree. After graduating from Harvard Medical School in 1941, he briefly worked in the Columbia-Presbyterian pediatric unit before becoming caught up in World War II, where he served as a member of the Air Force Medical Corps. After the war, he took a position at The Rockefeller University in New York City, where he would remain for his entire career. Ahrens’ major area of study was in lipid research and biochemistry; in the 1950s, when the number of researchers in the field began blossoming, he founded and became the first editor of the Journal of Lipid Research, still a prominent publication to this day. He made many important contributions to his area of research, including his examination of the relationship between diet and disease.
Ahrens came into Starzl’s life in the early 1970s, where Starzl’s team of transplant surgeons noticed that elevated cholesterol levels could be reduced by rerouting the portal venous blood around the liver during a portal diversion procedure. Starzl believed this method would be useful in treating a disease called familial hypercholesterolemia, a metabolic condition in which highly elevated cholesterol levels would lead to buildups in the blood, causing heart attack in very young patients. Starzl was deeply affected by the pain of seeing these children succumb to a terrible disease, noting that “this disease was worth hating.” [ref 1] After multiple studies showed the close relationship between the liver and cholesterol levels, liver transplantation became a possibility for treating the disease. Ahrens was an early supporter of the portal diversion technique, and was interested in liver transplantation as a potentially more permanent solution. He published an article in 1974 in The Lancet calling for collaboration between researchers and surgeons, an article to which Starzl provided his insight. (Doc. 1) Starzl and Ahrens kept in touch, always eager to do further research on ways to tackle this debilitating disease. (Doc. 2) Starzl continued to work to save the lives of his young patients; the much-publicized patient Stormie Jones, who received the world’s first heart-liver transplant in 1984 in Pittsburgh, suffered from the disease. Liver transplantation is still considered an option for patients with very severe cases.
Though they did not get a chance to work together on specific cases, Starzl and Ahrens maintained a great respect for one another and kept up a correspondence for many years. Ahrens features in “The Little Drummer Girls” chapter of The Puzzle People, and as such, they talked at length while Starzl was writing the book. Starzl also kept Ahrens abreast on continuing development in the organ transplantation field, including the success of controlling rejection with FK-506 (Tacrolimus). (Doc. 3) Starzl succinctly summed up the meaning of their relationship in a 1997 letter to Ahrens: “Although the period that you shared a corner of your life with me was admittedly brief, it had a lot of meaning to me, especially because our joint work had high scientific stakes. It also exposed a humanity in clinical investigation that may be more rare than discovery.” (Doc. 4) Dr. Ahrens passed away in 2000 at the age of 85.
- Thomas E. Starzl, The Puzzle People (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1992), 325
Dr. Starzl provides some input on Dr. Ahrens’ 1974 Lancet paper, “Homozygous Hypercholesterolemia and the Portacaval Shunt.”
Letter, June 3, 1974, Thomas Starzl to Edward Ahrens, 1 page
© Dr. Thomas Starzl
Dr. Starzl discusses the future of research on the relationship between cholesterol and the liver.
Letter, February 1, 1983, Thomas Starzl to Edward Ahrens, 1 page
© Dr. Thomas Starzl
Dr. Starzl describes developments in transplantation, particularly focusing on the efficacy of FK-506.
Letter, October 4, 1993, Thomas Starzl to Edward Ahrens, 3 pages
© Dr. Thomas Starzl