News & Features

Face Transplants

Face TransplantsWhy have parts of your face changed when you could just transplant the whole thing from an unfortunate somebody who is finished using his?

Hands, eyes, internal organs and even tongues have been successfully transplanted and now, science is working on the face transplant.

Unfortunately, the science is very young – although surgical teams around the world are clamoring for the chance to take a face from a cadaver and transplant it onto a person whose own face has been ruined by accident, fires or disease. But the day when you can go down to the morgue and pick out the mug you like best and wear it forever? That’s pretty far off on the medical horizon.

So far, scientists in the U.S. and England have reported some progress with transplanting cadaver faces onto rats that have survived for 170 days and at least one pooch who made it for six days with some other mutt’s mug.

According to the magazine New Scientist, at least five research teams spread across the globe are studying how and when to do whole face transplants.

The hang-up so far is because skin produces a stronger immune reaction than any other organ. Skin is, after all, your basic body wrapping and first line of defense so it’s no wonder it’s a super protector. Unfortunately, skin and its immune reaction are also single-minded so it does not know you are trying to do a body a favor with the transplant. All the skin sees with something new is “foreign invader!” and summons up all the immune chemicals it can to try and cast off the transplant. So the person with the new skin, the new tongue, the new whatever, must take more drugs, often for life, to blunt the immune function. And those drugs create still more problems with harsh side effects.

Face TransplantsScientists at the University of Louisville School of Medicine in Kentucky are trying to get permission to do a face transplant from a cadaver to a volunteer. (The team has already done a cadaver-to-cadaver transplant.) The idea is to get back into society a reclusive patient whose natural face has been grossly disfigured. It’ll be a rough go because the person must take some pretty powerful anti-rejection drugs.

The actual surgery goes way beyond nips and tucks and would include transplanting skin, muscles, fat, blood vessels and nerves.

But don’t hold your breath. The university says any face transplant is at least a year away and will require a team of about 15 people from the various helping professions to organize.

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