Gene Pierce – The Legacy of an Organ Donation, Transportation, and Transplantation Pioneer

Gene Pierce – The Legacy of an Organ Donation, Transportation, and Transplantation Pioneer

Gene Pierce – The Legacy of an Organ Donation, Transportation, and Transplantation Pioneer

60 years ago, Gene Pierce was a Sunday school teacher and Boy Scout troop leader in his free time. For his day job, he worked in the marketing department at Chesapeake Pulp and Paper Mill in West Point, Virginia—where he was instrumental in developing Green Life Fertilizer.1

When Gene found out that he and his wife were expanding their family to five children, he realized he needed to make a little more money. There happened to be two job openings at the time that interested him: One at the railroad company and the other at Medical College of Virginia (MCV).

Despite the railroad company job paying better, Gene was excited about the idea of being a surgical administrator with MCV and working with Dr. David Hume who—in 1954—was part of the team that performed the first successful kidney transplant.2

Gene took the MCV job, a path which led him to become the founder and driving force behind what is today the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS).

Kidney Transport Started with ‘The Kidney Van’

In the beginning, Gene Pierce and Dr. Hume simply wanted a better world for kidney transplant recipients in the state of Virginia. This vision and Pierce’s unrelenting drive led to his being an integral figure in:

  • Establishing the structure of what today is UNOS—a non-profit, scientific, and educational organization that administers the only Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network (OPTN) in the United States
  • Developing national policies for organ allocation and standards for member institutions

“When dad took the job with Dr. Hume, they had just started with transplanting kidneys—but they had not yet started transporting kidneys,” says Gene’s daughter, Melanie Pierce McClaskey.

Back then, there were not a lot of transplant surgeons like Dr. Hume. Furthermore, kidneys were transported for transplantation in a van that Melanie remembers as “The Kidney Van.”

“They started transporting kidneys around Virginia in this van,” says Melanie. “Dad would bring The Kidney Van home on the weekends, and we would clean and vacuum it out.”

Joel Newman, senior communications strategist at UNOS, says Pierce—who died in 2017 at the age of 87—was the “pioneer” of taking transplanted organs and transporting them over long distances for transplantation into other people.

MCV was the kind of place where doctors and transplant surgeons would come to train before moving on to bigger hospitals in bigger cities. Pierce got to know all these transplant surgeons as they passed through and maintained a strong working relationship with them after they had moved on to other hospitals across the country.

“When UNOS got to be a national system, Mr. Pierce knew everybody,” says Newman. “If we had a question or needed some info, he would tell his office assistant, ‘Get Tom Starzl [who performed the first ever human liver transplants] on the phone for me’ … and Tom Starzl would call Mr. Pierce back in 10 minutes. He knew and worked with them all and kept a network of the people who took transplantation to the next level.”

Expanding Organ Transport Beyond the Southeast

Pierce began outgrowing MCV.  After Dr. Hume was tragically killed in a plane crash in 1973, Pierce started the Southeastern Regional Organ Procurement Foundation, which later became Southeastern Organ Procurement Foundation (SEOPF).

“When they left MCV, it was just my dad and his secretary in a spare office at the VA hospital,” says Melanie. “Eventually they got better offices and more staff. They started out with The Kidney Center, which later became The Organ Center. They worked around the clock and dad was so dedicated to organ procurement and his vision.”

Originally an organization of 18 transplant centers in nine states, SEOPF soon began to expand its services to other transplant hospitals and organ procurement organizations elsewhere in the country.3

Gene Pierce – The Legacy of an Organ Donation, Transportation, and Transplantation Pioneer
The original SEOPF office. They had 1/2 of the first floor.

Computer Model for Placing Organ Over Distant Locations

To facilitate the process of placing organs over distant locations, SEOPF pioneered the use of a computer-based matching system called the United Network for Organ Sharing.4

“Today it would be called an Excel Spreadsheet,” says Newman, “but it was groundbreaking for its moment. If you had kidneys that you couldn’t use, here was this information you could put into this database about the blood type and size and about how far you were willing to travel. It took out of the equation the ‘hunt and peck’ way of how they were doing things.”

Started What is Today the UNOS Organ Center

While continuing to systemize the way kidneys could be donated, transported, and transplanted, Gene Pierce—in 1982—also produced the idea for the 24/7 SEOPF Kidney Center.

“For many years, the transplant programs would call each other on the phone and go through all of this very clinical info,” says Newman. “…The next iteration was when Gene said, ‘Well, let’s set up a call center, and hire people, and put them on a 24/7 schedule. They could have access to that database, take over these cases, make the calls, work out the placement, and free up the clinical staffs at the transplant hospitals to do clinical care.’”

Gene Pierce – The Legacy of an Organ Donation, Transportation, and Transplantation Pioneer
The UNOS Organ Center at the UNOS office in the late 80s.

Forty years later, the SEOPF Kidney Center that Gene started continues as the UNOS Organ Center, which continuously works days, nights, weekends, holidays, and during inclement weather and national disasters—saving lives by matching donors with candidates on the transplant waiting list.5

Named Executive Director of UNOS

As the transplant community grew and as patient treatment and survival improved, the U.S. Congress passed the National Organ Transplant Act in 1984 to unite the efforts of all organ procurement organizations and transplant hospitals nationwide.6

After Congress passed the act, UNOS was organized, and Gene was appointed its executive director.

“He had been working with it all along,” says Melanie. “In our minds, how could anybody else be chosen. Dad had been doing it from the beginning.”

Under federal contract, UNOS began serving in 1986 as the national OPTN and has continued in that capacity ever since.

Pierce retired in 1995. Upon his retirement, the national network had grown to include 60 organ procurement organizations and more than 220 transplant hospitals—performing more than 19,000 transplants per year.

With April being National Donate Life Month, CareDx decided to honor Gene Pierce by dedicating one of its conference rooms in his name.

1 Ingram Funeral Home and Crematory
2 National Kidney Foundation