Dr. William Edward Beschorner, Hopkins professor of medicine, dies

He was a pioneer in xenotransplantation, the science of transplanting organs from one species to another

  • Dr. William E. Beschorner
Dr. William E. Beschorner
March 23, 2011|By Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun

Dr. William Edward Beschorner, a former associate professor of medicine in the departments of pathology and oncology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine who was internationally known for his research on organ and tissue transplants, died March 15 of brain cancer at his Omaha, Neb., home.

The former Baldwin resident was 63.

"He was important on two fronts. His work with bone marrow transplants and pathology was internationally recognized, as was his work with xenotransplantation, with which he had a lot of luck," said Dr. Allan D. Hess, a medical school colleague of Dr. Beschorner's who is professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins Cancer Center.

Dr. Beschorner was born and raised in Aurora, Ill., where he graduated in 1965 from Aurora West High School.

He earned a bachelor's degree in 1968 from Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill., and a master's degree in biochemistry in 1971 from St. Louis University.

After earning his medical degree in 1976 from the University of Illinois College of Medicine in Chicago, he completed an internship and residency in pathology in 1980 at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

From 1980 to 1981, he was an instructor in the departments of pathology and oncology at the Hopkins medical school, where he was assistant professor from 1981 to 1986.

He was associate professor from 1986 to 1997. That year, he left Hopkins for Omaha when he was named professor of surgery at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

While at Hopkins, Dr. Beschorner's research focus was on xenotransplantation, which is the science of transplanting organs from one species to another.

Dr. Beschorner was brought to this field when he was conducting bone marrow transplantation research in the early 1990s and a challenge from a West Coast colleague raised the possibility of applying neonatal tolerance to adults so transplant organs were not rejected.

"In other words, create custom-made organs that have an immune tolerance to organ transplantation," according to a 2002 profile of Dr. Beschorner that was published in Discovery, a publication of the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

"After looking at 20 or 30 ways to modify the recipient, I turned it around to do neonatal tolerance on the donor," he said in the interview.

"Everybody said it wouldn't work. Even my mentor in bone marrow transplantation said, 'Sometimes good ideas don't work out.' But I had total faith this would work," Dr. Beschorner said.

In 1993, he established Ximerex Inc. in Baldwin and served as president and chief scientific officer.

"Ximerex Inc. is a biotechnology company dedicated to the treatment of tissue and organ failure using cells, tissues and organs from pigs," said a son, Kurt Beschorner of Shorewood, Wis., who is assistant professor in the department of engineering at the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee.

"Ximerex developed and patented technology to treat diabetes and increase the success of organ transplantation without the use of immunosuppressant drugs," his son said. "This work was groundbreaking in advancing the field of xenotransplantation and preventing transplant recipients from rejecting animal organs and tissues."

Using pigs from farms in Maryland and Pennsylvania, Dr. Beschorner "developed a way to inject bone marrow from sheep into fetal pigs. The pigs that were born contained cells that tolerized sheep to the donor pig," reported the Discovery profile.

"So many times I came within a hairsbreadth of failing, but those results gave me hope," he said.

In 1997, Dr. Beschorner moved Ximerex to the University of Nebraska Medical Center, which is internationally known for its transplant program.

"Unlike other animals, pigs and humans have fewer pathogens in common, so the potential for disease transmission is lower," Dr. Beschorner said in the interview. "Pig organs also are functionally similar to human organs."

Dr. Beschorner looked to the day when hybrid organs from pigs would no longer be considered exotic medical technology but rather commonplace and would overcome the current shortage of human organs for transplantation.

"Dr. Beschorner was a caring and thoughtful clinician-scientist. Through his research he helped advance our understanding of the biology of graft-versus-host disease in bone marrow transplant recipients," said Dr. Ralph H. Hruban, a longtime friend and colleague who is director of the division of gastrointestinal and liver pathology and director of the Sol Goldman Pancreatic Cancer Research Center at the Hopkins medical school.

"He took the knowledge he gained from studying these patients and applied it to study of solid organ transplantation. He had an inquisitive mind and was completely dedicated to his research, believing that a better understanding of the biology of transplantation would improve patient care and survival," Dr. Hruban said.

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