By Carole Bianchi
Thursday, December 1, 2005
LYON, France, Nov. 30 -- Physicians in France said they had performed the world's first partial face transplant, advancing into a risky medical frontier with an operation on a woman disfigured by a dog bite.
The 38-year-old woman, who has asked to remain anonymous, had a nose, lips and chin grafted onto her face from a brain-dead donor whose family gave consent. The operation, performed Sunday, included a surgeon famous for transplant breakthroughs, Jean-Michel Dubernard.
"The patient's general condition is excellent and the transplant looks normal," said a statement issued Wednesday from the hospital in the northern city of Amiens where the operation took place.
Scientists in China have performed scalp and ear transplants, but experts say the mouth and nose are the most difficult parts of the face to transplant.
The face surgery in France drew both praise and sobering warnings over its potential risks and ethical and psychological ramifications.
Critics say this kind of surgery is too risky for a condition that is not a matter of life or death, as regular organ transplants are. The main worry for both a full face transplant and a partial effort is organ rejection, causing the skin to slough off.
"It is not clear whether an individual could be left worse off in the event that a face transplant failed," said Stephen Wigmore, a physician and chair of the ethics committee of the British Transplantation Society.
If successful -- something that may not be known for months or even years -- the procedure offers hope to people horribly disfigured by burns, accidents or other tragedies.
The woman operated on in France was "severely disfigured" by a dog bite in May that made it difficult for her to speak and chew, according to a joint statement from the hospital in Amiens and another in the southeastern city of Lyon where Dubernard works. Such injuries are "extremely difficult, if not impossible" to repair using normal surgical techniques, the statement said.