Q&A: Marathon-Running Doc Boosts Organ Transplants, Targets Diabetes Cure

University of Virginia Health System surgeon Dr. José Oberholzer has performed more than 1,000 transplant-related surgeries and, since becoming director of UVA’s Charles O. Strickler Transplant Center in 2017, has nearly doubled the number of organ transplants performed at UVA.

The Switzerland native – who speaks four languages and holds three patents – is also determined to find a cure for diabetes and is pioneering islet cell transplantation in his lab at UVA to provide insulin-producing cells from a healthy pancreas to people with diabetes.

Oh, and he has run 25 marathons – that’s more than 600 miles – in support of diabetes research and the Chicago Diabetes Project, which he co-founded to support islet cell transplantation research.

All of that work and more earned Oberholzer a 2019 Meritorious Service Award from the Virginia Hospital & Healthcare Association, presented at an annual meeting earlier this year.

More important to Oberholzer, however, are the tangible results he sees in patients every day – from successful heart and lung transplants to children with diabetes who are able to reduce their dependence on insulin injections.

“Lab-based research can be very difficult, but I have the good fortune to see what I do directly translate to patients’ lives,” he said. “That is what makes me so passionate about this.”

We caught up with the award-winning surgeon to learn more.

Q. More than 20 years into your research career, what keeps you energized every day?

A. I am fortunate to work in a lab where the work is applied directly to patient care. For example, when we isolate insulin-producing islet cells from the pancreas and transplant those cells into juvenile diabetes patients, those patients immediately see benefits. Patients who have been checking their insulin for years have a same-day procedure, go home and are soon able to stop taking insulin.

It’s not perfect – they still have to take medications to prevent rejection and come in for follow-up – but it transforms their lives. Seeing that keeps you going in the lab, and keeps you motivated to push for the next generation of research.

Q. Your team has almost doubled the number of organ transplants performed at UVA. How did you accomplish that?

A. In fiscal year 2016, there were 190 organ transplants performed at UVA. Now, we are about to close fiscal year 2019 with 340 transplants. That does not happen by accident. It started at the senior leadership level, who recognized that 40% of patients who needed a transplant were going outside of the commonwealth. That is not good care, and changing it became a priority.

We worked with our experts on each organ – heart, lung, kidney, liver, pancreas and more – to determine what resources they needed to grow and what was impeding patients from getting transplants at UVA.

Q. What obstacles were you able to get rid of?

A. We changed some procedures, such as a rule that had prevented spouses from donating organs when they were also the patient’s primary caregiver. We put infrastructure in place for backup caregivers and other resources to ensure that spouses can safely donate.

Transportation was another obstacle, so our social work team developed a plan to help patients without access to cars find other transportation options. That was one of the most beautiful things to witness, for me personally. It opened the door for so many underserved patients.

We could not have done any of this without a great team. People really embraced and supported the effort to grow transplants at UVA, and that really speaks to the spirit of this institution. We are very ambitious and want to be really, really good at what we do.

Q. Why did you choose to focus your career on organ transplantation?

A. I have known since I was a little boy that I wanted to be a surgeon. I was that kid who would cut open stuffed animals to see what was inside. Once I was in medical school, I realized there was a whole world of science that totally fascinated me, researching how to prevent organ rejection and even how you could create new cells. As a transplant surgeon, I could work on this research in the lab while also instantaneously helping patients through surgery. That combination is what really drew me in and what still gets me excited every day.

Q. What do you see as your next big opportunity or challenge?

A. We have been focused on increasing the number of transplants at UVA, which was really a revolutionary change. Now, we are focused on evolution – continuing to grow while also dealing with some of the challenges that come with that growth. It takes courage for an institution to stick to that path and to keep growing.

I also want to really draw on the strength of the University as a research institution and expand the research portion of our work. An enormous amount of unsolved issues still limits the success of organ transplants, and UVA is poised to make significant strides in those areas. My ultimate goal is to be both a great clinical program and one of the best research programs for transplantation in the country.

Q. What does the next stage in the fight against diabetes look like?

A. The most immediate step is to continue to develop islet cell transplants to be approved by the FDA and reimbursed by Medicare. Then, we need to be able to encapsulate those cells and transplant them without the need for immunosuppression. Finally, we need to find a renewable cell source. Currently, the cells do not grow once they are isolated from an organ donor. If we can find a way to grow and sustain those cells, and overcome some of the risks that come with that, we will be very close to a cure.

Q. You grew up in Switzerland, speak four languages and have worked in several countries. How does that global perspective help your work at UVA?

A. I think it has given me an open-minded outlook and helps me to put changes in perspective. I am very open to new proposals. It can be a challenge to adopt new approaches at institutions with so much tradition, but I think the more diversity UVA brings in, the more that problem will fade. Diversity adds huge value to any institution, and I know that UVA advocates for that, and that I will continue to advocate for that, too.

Q. Last question: Any marathons coming up?

A. Yes! I am running the Chicago Marathon on Oct. 13 and the New York Marathon on Nov. 3, both for the Chicago Diabetes Project. We tell our charity runners it’s a “two-fer” – they can run two marathons, but only have to train for one.

Media Contact

Caroline Newman

Associate Editor Office of University Communications