Last week, an anonymous man became the first person in medical history to receive a second face transplant.
The recipient, a French man in his 40s, originally underwent a face transplant last year, however, his body promptly rejected it. The transplanted face was removed in November 2017 and he was induced into a coma – without a face – for nearly two months.
After a donor eventually became available, the new vascularized face graft was transplanted in an operation at the Georges Pompidou European Hospital in Paris on the afternoon of Monday, January 15, 2018. The surgery finished in the early morning of January 16, following hours of meticulous surgery.
Scientists and surgeons seriously doubted whether a “double face transplant” was even possible. As this operation shows, doctors have made an incredible amount of progress with facial transplants in recent years, yet the recurrent dangers remain.
“This transplant demonstrates for the first time that the retransplantation of vascularized grafts is possible in [the] case of chronic rejection,” France's biomedicine agency and the public hospital system said in a joint statement. “However, this transplant is subjected to severe immunological constraints and only the follow-up at several weeks will confirm the viability of the graft.”
Fewer than 40 people have gone under the knife to receive a face transplant, most of whom have suffered severe facial disfigurement through trauma, burns, disease, or genetic conditions.
At least six patients have died following the operation. The biggest problem facing recipients is the immune system’s rejection of the graft. As the body perceives the graft as a foreign object, the patient has a lifelong regimen of powerful immunosuppressive drugs, which in themselves can come with dangers.
The first partial face transplant took place in France on November 27, 2005, on a 38-year-old woman called Isabelle Dinoire whose face was severely mauled by her dog. She died last year from cancer inadvertently caused by immunosuppressive drugs used to prevent her body from rejecting the transplant.
Nevertheless, although the surgery operation remains high-risk, we shouldn’t downplay the phenomenal results of this biomedical breakthrough. Take, for example, firefighter Patrick Hardison, who received a “one-of-a-kind face transplant” in August 2015. One year on, he claimed the surgery had been profoundly life-changing.
“I go about my day just like everyone else,” Hardison explained. “It’s allowed me to do things with my family that I had not been able to do. I can’t tell you what a sense of freedom it is to even drive my kids to school.”