In August 2015, a retired fire fighter who had previously undergone multiple facial reconstruction surgeries while at the Elvis Presley Burn Unit of the Regional One Medical Center in Memphis, TN, received a full-face transplant. The plastic surgeons at the NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City performed the most extensive face transplant to date, replacing all skin and facial muscles from scalp to neck on the 41 year-old man who sustained his injuries while in a burning house.
About two dozen face transplants have been performed worldwide in the decade since the first partial face replacement was performed in France on a woman whose nose and lips were bitten off by her own dog.
A Plastic Surgeon Pioneer in Transplantation
Most people are probably unaware of the leading role plastic surgeons have played in the development of the field of transplantation. In 1954 plastic surgeon Dr. Joseph Murray, performed the first kidney transplant. He transferred a healthy organ from a man whose identical twin was dying from kidney failure. In the days before DNA testing, Dr. Murray compared the brothers’ fingerprints to insure they were identical and would not suffer immune system rejection.
Murray had become interested in the possibility of transplanting organs while treating burned soldiers during WWII. He noted that cadaver skin, used to replace burned skin, would survive for 8-10 days before it would “melt around the edges”. At the time, the possibility of organ transplantation was deemed impossible so that Murray’s research at Peter Bent Brigham Hospital (now called Brigham and Women’s) was “considered a fringe project”.
Although the initial transplants were performed in identical twins, Joseph Murray and his team continued their research until they were able to achieve their goal of using “tissue from a dead person to save a human life”. Dr. Murray was awarded the Noble Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 1990 for his pioneering work in organ transplantation.
Where Plastic Surgery and Transplants Overlap
Plastic surgeons along with orthopedic surgeons now perform hand transplants almost routinely so that the Mayo Clinic advertises its hand transplant services on Google. Life saving transplants of kidneys, hearts, lungs, livers, and other organs have become standard practice at many major medical centers.
New frontiers are opening up with the first uterus transplant performed at the Cleveland Clinic this month and a team of plastic surgeons and urologists at Johns Hopkins preparing for the first penis transplant on a veteran maimed by a bomb.