Dr. Jack Copeland holds the CardioWest artificial heart. He will be a cardiac surgery professor at the University of California-San Diego's new Sulpizio Family Cardiovascular Center.

World-renowned heart surgeon Dr. Jack Copeland has resigned from the University of Arizona to take a job in San Diego.

Administrators called it a big loss and wished him well.

"If there's such a thing as a rock star in (transplant) surgery, he's a rock star," said Gordon A. Ewy, director of the UA's Sarver Heart Center, where Copeland is a co-director.

"He literally put the University of Arizona on the map," Ewy said. "I can't thank him enough for his contributions."

When Copeland came to the UA from Stanford University in 1977 to develop a transplant program, "it was just a miraculous shot in the arm," Ewy said. "The thing that sticks in my mind: Back in those days, he did 100 coronary bypass surgeries without a fatality."

Copeland performed the first heart transplant in Arizona in 1979.

In 1985 he pioneered the use of an artificial heart to keep a patient alive until a donor heart became available for transplant - and that led to the UA's becoming a world leader in artificial-heart technology.

Rainer Gruessner, chairman of the UA surgery department, said he accepted Copeland's resignation as distinguished professor and cardiothoracic surgery chief a few weeks ago after talking with him about it earlier. The resignation is effective June 30.

Copeland will be a cardiac surgery professor at the University of California-San Diego's new Sulpizio Family Cardiovascular Center in La Jolla. The $227 million facilities are scheduled to open in April.

That's something Arizona can't immediately offer, although there has been talk of a new Sarver Heart Center facility in Phoenix.

Copeland's new wife, surgeon Hannah Zimmerman, is completing her general surgery training at UCSD and may specialize in cardiac surgery.

It's a great opportunity for him "to continue to make a mark," and his wife's education made it the right time to move, said Stuart Jamieson, UCSD's cardiovascular surgery chief and Copeland's longtime friend.

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Jamieson and Copeland trained at Stanford together and founded the International Society of Heart Transplantation together.

Because of the shortage of donors, a large part of future progress in the field will be in artificial-heart technology, Jamieson said. Copeland's leadership and reputation will be valuable in making sure that UCSD leads the way in cutting-edge cardiovascular therapies, he said.

"We've been very fortunate to have him here in Tucson as long as we did," said Humberto Lopez, chair of the Sarver Heart Center's advisory board. "It is a big loss. We're going to miss him. We wish him the best."

Reached Wednesday afternoon, Copeland said he was about to board an airplane and was unable to answer questions. (He sent an email to the Star late Wednesday and his remarks are attached to the left of your screen.)

Gruessner said Copeland's replacement will be named this fall after an international search.

Michael Moulton, associate surgery professor, has been appointed interim chief.

Contact reporter Becky Pallack at bpallack@azstarnet.com or 807-8012.