A FACE transplant in France which includes eyelids and tear ducts is being hailed as a breakthrough in reconstructive plastic surgery.
The announcement of the operation on a 35-year-old man with a genetic disorder takes to a new intensity the battle between surgeons to claim the world’s first complete face graft.
The operation was carried out by a 10-strong team led by medical pioneer Professor Laurent Lantieri at the Henri Mondor Hospital, outside Paris.
The man from the Paris region, who suffers from Proteus syndrome – also known as Elephant Man disease – underwent a 12-hour operation at the end of June after a compatible donor was found in a provincial French hospital.
“He’s doing well,” Professor Lantieri said. “He’s walking, he’s eating, he’s talking. Stubble is already growing on his new face.
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“The first time he saw himself in a mirror he stuck up both thumbs. In recent months his disease had been getting worse. His face, notably his eyes, were very damaged. He had been waiting for this operation for two years.”
The surgeon said that infection and rejection of what the body considers to be foreign tissue was a risk.
Isabelle Dinoire, a French woman who became the first recipient of a partial face transplant in 2005, will have to take medication for life to avoid tissue rejection.
The latest patient, named only as Jerome, took part in a French television documentary about severely disfigured people two years ago. “It’s the way other people look at you that is most difficult to take,” he told the program on the France2 channel.
A face transplant would enable him to “melt into the crowd, to be like anyone else”, he said. Jerome is the 14th person in the world to receive a face transplant but the first to be given eyelids and tear ducts, according to Professor Lantieri. “That’s the most difficult part. That’s what’s new in this transplant,” he said.
Because of the competition between medical teams around the world the French announcement will be subjected to scrutiny.
Professor Lantieri announced a year ago that he had technically performed the first complete face transplant, before a Spanish team led by Dr Joan Pere Barret, of the Vall d’Hebron Hospital in Barcelona, made the same claim earlier this year.
In the US Dr Maria Siemionow announced a near full facial transplant on a patient 18 months ago in what experts described as the most technically complex operation of its kind yet undertaken.
Professor Lantieri yesterday denounced as false previous claims to have grafted a full set of facial features on to a patient.
“We are the only people to this day to have transplanted a complete face,” he said. “I don’t have any particular desire to boast about it.”