Paul Ichiro Terasaki, who as a teenager and young adult worked as a busboy, gardener and handyman and who spent three years interned with his family in a Japanese American relocation camp during World War II, has given $50 million to the Division of Life Sciences in the UCLA College of Letters and Science.
Terasaki’s gift is the largest ever given to the UCLA College and is among the largest received by the university in its 91-year history.
In recognition of the gift, UCLA’s new Life Sciences Building will be named the Terasaki Life Sciences Building for the UCLA professor emeritus of surgery and pioneer in organ transplant medicine who in 1964 developed the test that became the international standard method for tissue typing, a procedure that assesses the compatibility of organ donors and recipients.
Terasaki’s gift includes $2 million to endow the Paul I. Terasaki Chair in Surgery at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, whose funds initially will support two postdoctoral fellowships in transplantation.
“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.”
“Dr. Terasaki is an inspirational role model and a great scientist who has had a nearly lifelong relationship with UCLA, as a student, professor, donor and father of UCLA alumni,” UCLA Chancellor Gene Block said. “The Life Sciences under Dean Victoria Sork are at the core of UCLA’s excellence, and I am absolutely delighted that our new Life Sciences building will be named for Dr. Terasaki. I am extremely
grateful for his visionary philanthropy.”
“Most advances in medicine are rooted in the life sciences,” Terasaki said. “That background opened the door to my research and proved vital to my medical discoveries.”
The Terasaki Life Sciences Building includes 33 laboratories, where hundreds of scientists will conduct state-of-the-science research integrating such fields as cell biology, neuroscience, genomics and stem cell research. It is scheduled to open in October.
“The Terasaki Life Sciences Building is a metaphor for what UCLA is doing in the Life Sciences, the essential science of the 21st century,” Sork said. “This building is designed to enhance interactions among scientists with different tools, approaches and ways of thinking. Increasingly, scientists across disciplines are sharing in empirical and computation approaches that benefit from exchange. The new life sciences provide the foundations for understanding biomedical innovations, applied human health problems and biodiversity challenges facing our planet, and this research will lead to improvements in how we live. The translation of this deep research across all areas into applications is becoming increasingly common, and
interdisciplinary collaboration of the kind we will see in this new building is key.
“I am pleased that Dr. Terasaki will continue his research, which has extended the lives of so many people, at UCLA,” Sork added. “Indeed, just this month, at a major scientific conference in San Diego, he reported an important advance on 16 patients who had kidney transplants and have survived for two years without drugs since their surgeries – a significant advance known as achieving the ‘holy grail of tolerance’ with transplants.”
Dr. Terasaki’s ‘Iconic’ Contributions to Organ Transplantation
Dr. Ronald W. Busuttil, executive chairman of UCLA’s Department of Surgery and chief of the division of liver and pancreas transplantation, has been a colleague of Terasaki’s for nearly three decades.
“Dr. Paul Terasaki’s contributions to solid-organ transplantation over the last 50 years are iconic,” said Busuttil, a distinguished professor who holds UCLA’s William P. Longmire Jr. Chair in Surgery. “Only a select few individuals have impacted our field in such a profound way. In particular, his seminal work in tissue typing was revolutionary and universally improved transplant patient outcomes and saved lives.
“The Terasaki gift will be directed toward furthering our basic science research in the areas of liver and intestinal transplantation through two postdoctoral fellowships,” he said. “Paul Terasaki’s generosity and support are inspirational, and we are honored to have been selected as partners in his UCLA legacy.”
For the past 40 years, all kidney, heart, liver, pancreas, lung and bone marrow donors and recipients were typed using the tissue typing test Terasaki developed.
“Not only has tissue typing been key to the success of bone marrow transplants and prolonged graft survival for patients fortunate enough to receive a well-matched kidney transplant, but the cross-match test he developed in the 1960s is still used today for all kidney transplant patients and select candidates for hearts, lungs, pancreata, bowels and sometimes liver transplantation to avoid catastrophic rejections that are mediated by antibodies against the donor’s human leukocyte antigens (HLA),” said Terasaki’s colleague Dr. J. Michael Cecka, a UCLA professor of pathology and laboratory medicine.
“Paul also developed new technologies to identify anti-HLA antibodies with a precision and certainty that permits us to predict cross-match compatibility accurately. This research contributed to the success of paired kidney exchanges around the country for transplanting highly sensitized kidney patients,” Cecka said.
The UCLA Kidney Transplant Registry, established by Terasaki in the 1970s, was the first and largest in the world until the establishment of federal registries. The UCLA data on kidney recipients submitted from some 200 transplant centers enabled doctors to monitor and improve transplant patient outcomes.
Terasaki was the first person to devise a method to perform tissue typing and to develop antibodies to be used for tissue typing. In 1984, he started a company called One Lambda with eight of his former students; the eight still work there, running the company, which now has 270 employees, and Terasaki serves as chairman of the board. He and One Lambda have played a central role in the development and advancement of tissue typing.
Just as each person has a blood type, each person has a tissue type, which is much more complex, since there are more than 1,000 different tissue types, Terasaki noted.
“I developed this method for tissue typing, spun the company out, and stayed at UCLA another 15 years continuing my transplantation research,” Terasaki said. “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.
In 1941, his father opened a cake shop in Little Tokyo that was very successful, but he was forced to sell the shop at a tremendous loss during World War II, when his family lost most of its possessions and was forced to relocate to an internment camp under federal orders.
‘The Horse Came Back’
For three years, beginning at age 12, Terasaki lived in the Gila River relocation camp in Arizona with his parents, two brothers and an aunt in a single modest room that was about the size of his current office. They were allowed to bring to the camp only what they could carry. Terasaki described his education there with a
single word: “deficient.”
“There were no worries about crime or drugs or any other negative influences that most kids face today, and young children, without proper schooling, were left to play. But for those older, who were drafted into the army while their families were in camp, life was much more difficult,” he said. “For the adults, who lost
everything and who had no resources or ability to be productive for themselves or their families, life was changed forever.”
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, uncomfortable moving back to California, moved to the south side of Chicago. From age 16 on, Terasaki worked constantly. During his senior year in high school, he worked 10 to 12 hours a day as a restaurant busboy on Saturdays and Sundays, earning 40 cents an hour plus tips. He proudly gave the money to his mother, who kept his paycheck and gave him an allowance until he got married.
“I worked to help my family, and it never occurred to me to keep any of my earnings,” he said.
When he graduated from high school in Chicago, Terasaki thought of attending radio repair school. However, his mother thought he should go into medicine, and he entered the University of Illinois at Navy Pier as a pre-med student. 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 were $39 per semester and the campus had only a dozen buildings.
Terasaki’s father worked at an antique repair shop, and his mother worked in garment factories. When his father became an apartment manager in Los Angeles, Terasaki was the handyman, repairing toilets and painting the rooms.
“It was enough to convince me that I needed to continue my education, because I did not want to get trapped doing this kind of work forever,” he recalled.
‘Impossible to Think About’
What would he have thought back then if someone had told him that one day he would give $50 million to UCLA and have one of the major buildings on campus named for him?
“It would be impossible to think about that – to think that I would ever donate anything to UCLA would have been impossible,” he said. “It’s quite a distance I’ve travelled. After the camps, we did not have enough money to afford much of anything.”
Terasaki earned his bachelor’s degree, master’s degree and Ph.D. from UCLA in zoology. He then 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. (Terasaki later won the Medawar Prize from The Transplantation Society.)
“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.”
Terasaki got his first car in the early 1950s – a 1939 Plymouth whose clutch was always breaking. He drove it without a floor, which made it easier for him to repair it. However, he could see the road when driving, which embarrassed him when he went out with Hisako, his future wife; he recalls that she did not complain about it. They married in January 1954.
Terasaki, after being promoted from researcher, served as a UCLA professor of surgery 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. Today, Terasaki is aided by more than 100 laboratory workers who have worked with him for 10 to 40 years at One Lambda and the Terasaki Foundation.
“I owe any success I had to a large group of colleagues who toiled with me for the past 40 years,” he said.
While nearly every faculty member in surgery departments at UCLA and elsewhere had M.D. degrees, Terasaki was an exception, with a Ph.D.
“It was an important promotion for me because I was not an M.D. or a surgeon,” he said. “It was very rare, and I was very pleased. In the whole country, there were not many other Ph.D.s who were professors of surgery. I am grateful to Dr. William Longmire, who was UCLA’s chairman of surgery. It was because of the freedom that he allowed me in my research that I was able to develop tissue typing. Dean Sherman
Mellinkoff provided the medical school with the environment that encouraged innovation.”
UCLA has played a major role in Terasaki’s life and the life of his family. His children have spent a total of 22 years at UCLA. His first son earned a bachelor’s degree from UCLA (and a Ph.D. from UC Berkeley); his second son earned his bachelor’s, master’s and M.D. from UCLA; and his daughter earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from UCLA (and an M.D. from Oxford). Terasaki’s third son earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from UC Irvine.
Terasaki’s generosity to UCLA goes back years and covers many parts of the university. In 2001, he established an endowed chair in U.S.-Japan relations, and in 2006, he and his wife contributed $5 million to UCLA to promote better understanding between the United States and Japan at the renamed Paul I. and Hisako Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies at the UCLA International Institute.
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.”