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Friday, June 19, 2009, 10:10 pm PT (01:10 am ET)

Steve Jobs' return to Apple linked to liver transplant

While it was never entirely clear what Apple co-founder Steve Jobs would do to recuperate between January and June, a new report maintains that he's had a liver transplant and that his return to work may be gradual at first.

Claiming as always to know people familiar with Apple's inner workings, the Wall Street Journal now says that Jobs had his transplant two months earlier through doctors in Tennessee. Although these are sometimes problematic, the company head is viewed as "recovering well" and on track to resume his usual post in the often-repeated late June timeframe.

When he does set foot on the Cupertino campus in earnest, however, it's now thought that the luminary won't just take up business as usual. Jobs' physicians have reportedly advised him to only work part-time for the first "month or two" until it's certain he can handle a full slate.

As a consequence, Tim Cook, normally the chief operating officer and temporarily handling chief executive duties during Jobs' absence, may now be more involved with Apple's leadership than he has in the past. How much of this will vary from his current acting CEO role isn't clear, but it's hinted he may be placed on Apple's board of directors sometime soon, giving him greater sway over the direction of the Mac maker.

The transplant, if true, could well create a much clearer picture of what triggered Jobs' rapid weight loss in 2008 and his forced break in 2009. Washington University doctor William Hawkins believes that the pancreatic cancer that affected Jobs in 2004, once thought cured, metastasized again in his liver — the organ most likely to continue supporting that particular form of cancer. About three quarters of all those who recover from the initial pancreatic tumor get that cancer again.

Few opt for a liver transplant, however, as spare organs are rare and there's no guarantee that replacing the cancerous organ will solve the problem. The odds are nonetheless good and again see three quarters of those who pick the transplant option surviving at least five years longer. Tennessee was likely chosen as the waiting list was shorter than in other states and feasible for a man with the income to travel wherever he could get the quickest treatment.

Not surprisingly, confirming any of these assertions proves difficult through Apple's tendency towards secrecy, and especially that of Steve Jobs, who has long expressed frustration with journalists and investors intruding into what he sees as a private matter. None of the hospitals committed to regularly performing liver transplants say they have Jobs as a patient. When asked, Apple spokeswoman Katie Cotton would only echo the company's official statement that Jobs "continues to look forward" to his end-of-June return.