Angela Charlton, AP
A 35-year-old man with a genetic disorder has an entirely new face, including tear ducts that cry and a chin that sprouts stubble. A rare full-face transplant was performed by a French surgeon and hailed as a new advance in improving the lives of the disfigured.
Dr. Laurent Lantieri, one of the few doctors in the world who has performed face transplants in the past, said that the patient, “gave me two thumbs up” after the operation at the Henri-Mondor hospital in the Paris suburb of Creteil. “The patient is doing very well,” Lantieri told The Associated Press. “He is very happy, but that is not the final goal. The final goal for us is social re-insertion,” or allowing the patient to reconstruct a life not haunted by a deformed face.
Lantieri stated that the latest surgery was the first involving so many different facial features. The hospital said the operation was the 12th face transplant worldwide since the first conducted in 2005 on the nose, mouth and chin of a woman disfigured by a dog attack. Replacing eyelids and tiny tear ducts is especially challenging, other surgeons said. The nerves must re-grow, and the lids must be sturdy enough to protect the eyes but supple and swift enough to blink.
“We can see that he already has tears, so that's not a problem,” Lantieri stated. It will be another few months, however, before doctors can be sure the patient can blink correctly, he said. Hospital workers already have shaved stubble growing out of the new chin. Neither Lantieri nor the hospital would give further details about the patient.
Surgeons at the Vall d'Hebron Hospital in Barcelona, Spain, said they carried out the world's first full-face transplant in April on a young Spanish farmer unable to breathe or eat on his own since accidentally shooting himself in the face. Doctors lifted the jaw, nose, cheekbones, muscles, teeth and eyelids from a donor and placed it, mask-like, onto the man. A near-total face transplant was carried out in Cleveland in 2008, on a woman who was also shot in the face.
Skeptical bioethicists and doctors' groups have warmed to the idea of facial transplants for patients who have tried reconstructive surgery with little success. After transplants, the patients' faces are not flawless, but they do not look like the dead donors and they are usually free of the tumors or scars that drove them to the extreme surgery. Like all organ transplant recipients, these patients face the risk of rejection and other complications, and must take immune-suppressing drugs for life.
Doctors said the risks of rejection are not particularly higher with a full face transplant than a partial transplant, nor are the requirements for a donor much more stringent. The main difference, they said, is time. The latest operation took about 24 hours.