How Does a Face Transplant Work?

Face transplant surgery is a medical wonder of the recent times. Till date, there have been only 40 facial transplants done around the world. With the ability to transform lives, this procedure remains complex and riddled with challenges.

French woman face transplant
French woman Isabelle Dinoire (1967-2016) was the first person to undergo a partial face transplant

In the year 2005, the late Isabelle Dinoire was the first person to ever undergo a partial face transplant after an attack by her Labrador retriever cross-breed.

In November that same year, she underwent a 15-hour long operation in which her chin, nose and lips were transplanted onto her face from a brain-dead donor from Amiens in her home country of France.

How does it all work and what are the risks with this life-changing procedure?

Face Transplant Explained

In essence, the procedure requires the removal of a deceased person’s face and layering it onto that of another person.

The face is composed of numerous layers of hair, skin and 44 muscles that control movement from your eyebrow, lips and even nostrils.

A face also consists of bone, cartilage, sensory and motor nerves, blood vessels and other tissue.

These features allow for basic functions such as smelling, seeing, eating and even cues for non-verbal communication such as frowning or smiling.

Patients that require a face transplant require it due to past burns, trauma, tumour ablation or even congenital disorders.

Examples of diagnosed conditions that have been treated with this surgical procedure include neurofibromatosis type one.

Watch the incredible story of Asia from Poland, who suffers from neurofibromatosis type one, a rare genetic condition.

A standard reconstructive process with autologous tissues including bones, muscles and skin do come with a set of limitations in restoring complex defects.

Therefore, both aesthetic and functional outcomes are typically less than optimal.

Picking a Patient & Donor 

Before setting a date for the surgical procedure one must first be considered an eligible candidate to receive a face transplant.

Although varying across the world, general rules apply, such as age, health at the time of the procedure and even willingness to subject to various tests.

Once a candidate has been allowed to undergo the procedure, a match must be made in order for them to acquire a new face.

Similarly, a possible donation must first be given approval and consent by their relatives if not through a proven credible source that the deceased has willingly decided to be a donor.

Once approved to be a donor and if both candidates bear a similar skin texture and colour, a match is made and the procedure is given the approval to be carried out.

What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

The benefits of this procedure are rather straightforward with restored functionality and appearance as well as decreased discomfort for the patient, but, what about its possible consequences?

Short term consequences include blood clots, infections, issues with healing wounds, pain and bleeding and even the possible development of other medical problems.

Long terms risks include the rejection of a new face that culminate to identity issues, issues with bone healing that may require additional surgery and even side-effects from prescribed medication.

Other major risks also include psychological effects on the patient and the donor’s family.

Both the patient and donor’s family have to accept having someone else’s face as their own and having to see someone else bear the face of their beloved deceased family member respectively.

This led to the Royal College of Surgeons coming up with a face transplant paradox that ‘the more psychologically vulnerable are more likely to seek a transplant but are also more prone to unrealistic expectations and will be less well equipped to deal with the aftermath’.

The Future of Face Transplants

A potential key to unlocking the future of face transplants may lie in stem cell research.

It has been predicted that stem cell therapies could be used to aid patients in cultivating tolerance to transplanted tissue, thus lowering the risks of rejection.

Stem cells could even be utilised to potentially grow tissues in a lab.

Stages of Recovery 

Technology has made vast improvements over the years that have allowed for medical breakthroughs to make room for this ground-breaking procedure.

Only a select few people are eligible to receive and donate as part of this procedure.

With that, the surgery itself is just half the battle won.

The other half would be the arduous process of recovery.

All patients are required to go through a rehabilitation process that are tailored to fit their needs for a smooth recovery.

All across the world, medical specialists are growingly confident about the future of face transplants.

As more medical practitioners are being trained with the latest treatments for facial transplants, more patients that require the procedure are reached and able to seek medical attention.

With more research, facial transplants are on the way to becoming more readily available in the near future.

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