Two years after receiving a dramatic face transplant, a Chinese man who was mauled by bear can eat, drink, and talk normally, doctors reported. Another patient, a Frenchman who suffered from a rare genetic disease that deforms the face, received a similar transplant one year ago and can now smile and blink, proving that the brain is restoring facial nerve connections.
Despite recurrent episodes of tissue rejection in the first year after their transplants, neither man had psychological problems accepting their new faces and have been able to rejoin society [Reuters]. Doctors say that the successes with these two men, who are only the second and third people to ever receive the operation, suggest that the procedure is safe and could one day become routine. “There is no reason to think these face transplants would not be as common as kidney or liver transplants one day,” said Dr. Laurent Lantieri, one of the French doctors [AP].
The operations, whose results are published in the journal Lancet [subscription required], follow on the heals of the world’s first face transplant, conducted in 2005 on a French woman who had been attacked by a dog. But the Chinese patient’s surgery was the most drastic operation yet. The patient was a farmer from a remote village in Yunnan province in China, who had been attacked by a bear 18 months earlier, leaving a huge section of tissue missing from the right side of his face…. The Chinese patient was given not just the lip, nose, skin and muscle from a donor, but even some facial bone [BBC News].
The main medical concern in transplant operations is that the patient’s immune system will attack the new tissue, taking it for a foreign invader. Both men suffered several “rejection episodes,” but doctors were able to restore order using immunosuppressant drugs. Skin tissue is particularly potent at provoking an immune response, so patients need to take the drugs for the rest of their lives [The Guardian]. Not everyone is convinced that face transplants are safe over the long term; some doctors worry that patients have an increased cancer risk because of their suppressed immune systems.
Image: The Lancet